"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Return of Nelly Butler: America's First Great Ghost

Machiasport circa 1908 via Wikipedia

The fun began on the night of August 9, 1799, in Machiasport, Maine. The family of Albert Blaisdel suddenly heard a disembodied voice echoing through their house, announcing that he/she/it/whatever would shortly appear in their village.

Blaisdel put on his what-would-the-neighbors-think hat on and told his family to keep this news item to themselves. Tales of ghostly visitations did not play very well in 18th century New England.

All was quiet for some weeks afterwards, and the Blaisdels had just convinced themselves they had imagined the whole experience, when on January 2, 1800, The Voice made an unwelcome return. She—they were able to recognize it as a she this time—informed them that she was their neighbor George Butler’s wife Nelly, who had died in childbirth some months before. She demanded they send for her father, David Hooper.

Hooper was persuaded to travel to the Blaisdel home—God knows what they told him—and when he arrived, he was stunned to encounter his lost Nelly. He testified afterwards that “the Spectre,” as the visitor was called, gave “such clear and irresistible tokens of her being the spirit of my own daughter as gave me no less satisfaction than admiration and delight.”

Nelly then decided it was about time to be seen, instead of just heard. A couple of weeks later, Blaisdel’s son Paul was walking through a field when he saw a “strange-looking” woman in white walking—or, rather, floating—towards him. Then, before he knew how to even react, she vanished.

The next morning, Nelly complained of Paul’s rudeness in not speaking to her. She took such offense at this unneighborly spirit that she disappeared for two months. In March, she was back, ordering the Blaisdels to the cellar, where she proceeded to lecture them on the reality of the afterlife.

One can only picture their delight in sitting in utter darkness, being nagged by a ghost. In fact, this whole story suggests that those psychic researchers who earnestly do all in their power to summon ghosts had better be careful what they wish for. Nelly was probably the most irritatingly conspicuous spirit in history.

By now, of course, Nelly had become quite the local conversation piece. Some townspeople saw her but did not hear her, some heard her without catching a glimpse of her, some never saw or heard anything at all (one can imagine their attitude of superiority towards their lunatic neighbors,) and, of course, a favored few like the Blaisdels got the full treatment. Everyone who saw “the Spectre” agreed that it was identical to the living Nelly Butler, only in the afterlife she had acquired all-white robes and a glowing white light that surrounded her. The poor Blaisdels (who must have been wishing Nelly into a more infernal region) had to play host to an unending stream of houseguests who had come to chat with the late Mrs. Butler. The Spectre did her best to soothe the Blaisdels—particularly their terrified young children—that she meant them no harm, and she seems to have meant what she said.

Still, we all know what it’s like to have houseguests who never know when to leave.

Nelly’s husband George was as convinced as his father-in-law that this was indeed his wife. He stated that when he talked to the spirit, she told him things that had passed between him and Nelly in life that no one else could have known. Her parents said much the same thing. However, Nelly’s sister, Sally Wentworth, was more dubious. She thought it highly likely they were all being hoaxed by the Devil.

Or perhaps that’s what she preferred to believe. On one occasion, someone asked the Spectre if Sally was a good Christian. Nelly replied, “She thinks she is, she thinks she is.”

Nelly then turned matchmaker. She told her husband, George Butler, to marry Abner Blaisdel’s daughter Lydia. George and Lydia had been inching towards a courtship, but once Nelly butted in, Lydia was having none of it. “I will not marry a man who has been scared into proposing by a ghost!” she snapped, and who can blame her? A third party is unwelcome enough during a honeymoon, but when it’s your new husband’s nosy dead wife, that’s surely asking too much of a girl. Lydia was so upset by Nelly’s tactless interference—not to mention the local gossip speculating that she herself was impersonating the Spectre just to get a husband—that she tried to leave town. However, Nelly warned her—in front of a number of witnesses—that it was useless to flee. Her fate was her fate. After this talking-to, George was able not only to soothe his sweetheart out of her qualms, but overcome the opposition of their families (who had all bitterly opposed the match.) The two were finally married.

Even then, of course, Nelly couldn’t keep her big mouth shut. Immediately after the wedding, the Spectre came privately to her ex (joint?) husband and warned him that he would not have Lydia for long. Within the year, the new Mrs. Butler would have a child, and—just like Nelly--die the next day. And that is exactly what happened. One can only hope Captain Butler had the sense to keep wife number one’s predictions to himself while wife number two was still alive.

Or perhaps Nelly was playing a more sinister game. Some accounts state that the time of her death, there were rumors she had not died as a result of childbirth, but had been murdered—rumors that gained such force that an informal inquest was held into her death. (This would certainly explain why the Blaisdel family was so anxious for Lydia not to marry George Butler.) Some people who talked with the Spectre claimed she made statements indicating that she indeed had been the victim of foul play. If true, it makes one wonder uneasily why she would be so anxious for her husband to remarry, and to a woman who would be doomed by the match.

Nelly apparently delivered more predictions that later came true. On one occasion, she told Abner Blaisdel that his father, who lived two hundred miles away, had just died. One week later, he received the news confirming this report.

Nelly continued ordering people about, preaching the glory of God, making unasked-for predictions, and generally being a big show-off for quite some time. Her last recorded performance was in July of 1806, while Machiasport was visited by a minister who lived in the area, Abraham Cummings. He had, of course, heard about the resident ghost, and was quite troubled by this evidence of mental and emotional decay shown by his flock. While he was undoubtedly preparing a most stern sermon against the dangers of clinging to primitive superstitions, he was informed that Nelly had made one of her periodic appearances. Of course, he couldn’t resist going to see for himself, if only to provide further ammunition against the mass hysteria that seemed to have taken hold around him.

As he began walking towards the Blaisdel home, he was startled to see a glowing ball of light rise in front of him. He was a great deal more than startled when this light transformed itself into the shape of a tiny woman. He thought to himself, “You’re not tall enough for the woman who has been appearing among us.”

Instantly, the figure grew to adult size, giving off “glorious” rays of light. Cummings simply stared, unsure what the proper etiquette might be with such an apparition. He later admitted he was scared to death, but with his fear was mixed a strange “ineffable pleasure.”

After a moment, the figure vanished. And Cummings was forever a changed man. That brief experience turned him from a disapproving skeptic in the spirit world to an ardent, grateful believer. He wrote that it was the greatest regret of his life that he lacked the presence of mind to speak to her. The Reverend was not one to do things by halves. He set himself up as Nelly’s official biographer. He did a thorough investigation into all the dozens of sightings of the spirit, and eventually published his findings in an 1826 pamphlet entitled “Immortality Proved by Testimony of Sense.” Thanks to Cummings, Nelly is one of the most heavily-documented ghosts on record.

After Cummings’ conversion, Nelly evidently felt she had fulfilled her mission. She has never been seen again.

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