February 26, 2011
The Talkative Ghost of Nelly Butler
The following are some things I consider traditional activities for ghosts: moaning eerily, knocking things off shelves while invisible, showing up in people's bedrooms and scaring the heck out of them, and maybe even making the walls bleed. I'd even accept flushing toilets incessantly in a haunted hotel.
I wouldn't consider talking for hours and hours a very ghostly activity. But New England's first recorded ghost did just that. In fact, she delivered entire sermons to a large audience.
The haunted happenings started in 1799 in the Machiasport, Maine home of Captain Abner Blaisdel. Throughout the year the Blaisdel family heard odd sounds in their home, but although they thought it unusual they didn't worry much about it. In early 1800 the noises became louder and more easily identifiable.
It was a woman's voice, and it was coming from their cellar.
The voice claimed it belonged to one Nelly Butler, the recently deceased wife of nearby resident Captain George Butler. Nelly's ghost chatted with the Blaisdel family for a while, and eventually they summoned Nelly's father, David Hooper. Mr. Hooper came to the Blaisdel's cellar a skeptic, but left convinced that it was indeed his daughter's spirit talking to him.
In the spring of that year Nelly became visible, appearing first to one of the Blaisdel children as a glowing female form floating over the fields. Soon she began appearing as a glowing white shape in the Blaisdel's cellar, where she would lecture large crowds of people about the Bible and their moral (and immoral) behavior. Eventually, Nelly began appearing in the woods and farms around town, and in the Hooper and Butler family homes.
Nelly also delivered prophecies, accurately predicting that Capt. Blaisdel's wife and father would die, and that her own widowed husband Captain Butler would marry Blaisdel's daughter Lydia. Nelly appeared at their wedding, and sadly predicted that Lydia would be dead within ten months. That prophecy also came true. (It also silenced local gossips who thought Nelly's ghost was really a hoax created by Lydia Blaisdel - Nelly continued to appear after Lydia died.)
Reverend Abraham Cummings, a local clergyman remained skeptical. He thought Nelly's ghost was clearly a hoax perpetuated by Captain Blaisdel himself. But he changed his mind after encountering Nelly, who appeared to him along the road as a ball of white light that changed to a woman "with rays of light shining from her head all about, and reaching to the ground." Rev. Cummings later wrote about his meeting with the ghost in a pamphlet called Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Science.
And that was the last time Nelly appeared to anyone. Apparently her mission was done.
This is one of those "what the heck!?!?!" stories that are hard to categorize. I got a lot of my information from Joseph Citro's excellent book Passing Strange, and he points out the similarities between Nelly's ghost and spiritualism and visions of the Virgin Mary. I think those are both good points. Spiritualism didn't officially appear until the 1840s, but perhaps this was an early precursor. The Machiasport folks were Protestants, so maybe they categorized a phenomena differently than Catholics would have, who might have seen the spirit as Mary.
As for myself, I'm just confused and puzzled.
For those who want to read more about Nelly Butler's ghost, Google books has the text of Emma Hardinge Britten's 1884 book Nineteenth Century Miracles, or Spirits and Their Work in Every Country of the Earth. It contains transcripts of conversations with Nelly and more details about her appearances.