Classic Mysteries by W. Ritchie Benedict

The Ghost In The Cowshed – A Multiple Witness Case

by W. Ritchie Benedict

The year 1910, was a watershed in many respects. The world likely lost its last chance to avoid the carnage of World War I, when King Edward VII, who had a personal relationship with the Kaiser, died in May of that year. It was the year of Halley’s Comet, and people were looking skyward for signs and portents. American author Mark Twain, who was born during the previous appearance of the comet in 1835, always predicted he would go out with the next approach, and he did exactly that in April 1910. Somewhere in Germany, a starving 21 year old hobo named Adolf Hitler still harbored ambitions of being a great artist. A young couple in California known to their neighbors as the Reagans announced they were expecting a baby whom they would name Ronald Wilson upon his arrival. A few savvy scientists were already talking about developing television. Subsequent opinions hold that they were very close at that early date, and it was only World War I, that put a halt to these promising ambitions.

There was an explosion in reporting psychic phenomena and paranormal events, no more so, than in Canada. A dramatic UFO sighting, or “aerial phantom” as some newspapers referred to it, occurred on October 27th, 1910, when a cigar-shaped machine, carrying one light in front, two green lights one third of the way back, and two tail lights, was first spotted over Medicine Hat, Alberta. It crossed Canada, being seen in Saskatchewan, Fort William, Ontario, Montreal, and finally southern Labrador – a feat that the machines of that day were incapable of doing. It was estimated to be 2,000 feet high and traveling in a south-westerly direction at 50-60 m.p.h., when first reported.

It seemed that the entire country was reporting ghosts and poltergeists. Calgary and Edmonton, as always in a “spirited rivalry” reported apparently haunted houses. The Calgary case, which initially seemed promising, was resolved with a little scientific detection. A family was being driven half crazy night and day by the sounds of “eerie, fearful gurglings and moanings,” leading them to believe their home was haunted. The landlord and the city engineer launched an investigation into the noises, which seemed peculiar, as no other houses in the district were similarly afflicted. Finally the sounds were traced to the presence of a steam laundry a block away. The water line conducted the sounds directly to the house and distributed it in all directions.

Calgarins may have been disappointed in the mundane explanation, but the disturbances in an Edmonton home the previous July (in 1909) remain a mystery to this day. A number of families rented the home, only to depart abruptly without even notifying the owner. One renter actually saw the apparition, which had a penchant for opening doors and emitting groans. Multiple locks and furniture piled in front of doors did not stop this determined apparition. As a climax to the evening the ghost would slam every door in the house with a force that threatened to tear them off their hinges. The house was subsequently rented to some Chinese-Canadians. When one of them was awakened at midnight by the antics of the ghost, he prepared to defend himself with a flat iron, expecting a burglar. As he stood opposite one of the doors, it flew open with sufficient force to open a large gash on his head. The groans increased in number and volume. When the frightened Chinese attempted to flee, they discovered the door to the nearest exit was closed and locked, with a chair placed in front of it that would normally have been in the laundry room. On the other side of the door was a shriek of demonic laughter. When they returned the following day to collect their belongings, they were obliged to take measures to try and appease the spirits. A black family from Georgia were the next tenants, and they refused to yield to the disturbances the first night. That changed however, when the ghost turned up at the bedside of the man of the house and threatening all manner of dire punishment if they did not leave immediately. The family left the following morning and never returned. Despite the racist tone of the Edmonton Journal article writer (who managed to insult two races simultaneously), there is no doubt that something very strange occurred.

The rest of Canada too, would be bothered by supernatural manifestations – as far away as Halifax. On May 13th, the Lethbridge Herald, told its 1910 readers of a girl at Charlottetwon, Prince Edward Island, who had the remarkable ability to create the sounds of machinery while in a deep trance. Lights were seen over and above her house during these demonstrations. The noises could be heard from miles away, and at times resembled railway trains and rappings. In February 1910, the residents of Cow Bay, had a mysterious black dog that vanished and reappeared. The Halifax Herald on the 28th, reported that a dog belonging to Mr. James Bowes, sprang at the intruder, which faded away, when the Bowes dog jumped through it! The phantom dog was described as having no tail and being the size of a rather small Newfoundland dog. The area of Cow Bay already had a substantial history of phantom horses, dogs, and balls of fire rolling down hills. Workmen at a nearby sugar refinery would wait until dawn rather than walk home in the darkness.

All of these events, however would pale into insignificance, next to the events in Cavan township near Toronto. Five people witnessed the ghost, and four of them actually heard the sound of his voice! The Toronto World considered the case to be of such importance that they would give it a banner spread in the Sunday edition of March 13th 1910. The township of Cavan was located about 75 miles from Toronto, and was the home of William Johnston, an aged farmer and a pioneer of the district. Mr. Johnston, who was 75 at the time of the events, had a large family, consisting of five sons, William James, Robert, Albert, Charles and Fred, ranging in ages from 30 to 20. There was also an adopted daughter, Hannah Pigott, 20, who had lived with the Johnstons since she was 10 years old. The farm was apparently quite prosperous and most of the buildings had been recently constructed, which did not mean that any ghost was a relic from the long ago past. The newspaper reporters from the World faced some formidable difficulties in reaching the homestead, being chased from their lodgings by a drunken proprietor, and then being told there were no horses or conveyance available to traverse the remaining 8 miles. Determined to get the story, they set out on foot, covering about a mile, until a farmer decided to loan them his team. Unfortunately the horses became mired in a swamp road. Setting off once again, they found the snow was too deep on their chosen route and they had to make a detour through fields and stumpy wastes. If they had not persisted, it is possible the Johnston haunting would have been lost to posterity. After such problems, it would be natural for the cynical newsmen to file a hostile report, but the account is remarkably straightforward. They must have been convinced by the sincerity of the witnesses.

The ghostly figure of a man had appeared in the stables to five members of the Johnston family, three of whom saw it on different nights. On each occasion, the ghost appeared in a different form, although it stood erect, like an ordinary man. The first time, it appeared to be middle-aged with a smiling face, which was at least friendly enough. The second time, however, was without a head. The third manifestation showed the ghost had visibly aged, with a long moustache and whiskers, heavily tinged with grey. During his final appearance, a new and startling development occurred. The ghost actually spoke! Even though they were only a few feet away, the words seemed to be mere mutterings to the Johnston boys. Three words were heard distinctly. The first was “Crawford,” then “land” and finally “and.” The witnesses were certain the ghost was in the middle of an uncompleted sentence when it vanished, and that the last word was not a repetition of “land.”

None of the witnesses had any prior belief in ghosts, but that was not the case with their late uncle whose death may have precipitated the unsettling visions. Thomas Crawford, 71, the brother-in-law of William Johnston, had died in the county poor house of Cobourg, Ontario, on February 22nd, the exact day the spectre appeared in the cow barn. Crawford whose wife Ann had died 10 years earlier, was a firm believer in ghosts, and claimed he had received visits from them. He had been in failing health, and had been unable to work or keep up his land. Although the obvious candidate for being the ghost, Crawford’s physical description did not match that of the spectre. In fact, it would not be more different. Nevertheless, the Johnston family were convinced that the ghost had some connection with the recently deceased uncle. Mr. Johnston, being older than his brother-in-law, must have harbored some suspicions that the unearthly visitor had come for him! Certainly, the late Mr. Crawford had a good deal of unfinished business, which is often cited as a reason for dead relations to communicate with the living. The Johnstons felt that he desperately wanted to communicate his wishes regarding the disposal of his house and land before he passed away.

Was it possible that Crawford had sent a messenger instead of coming back himself?

The Johnstons wondered uneasily, if the ghost was a warning of some sort. Mrs. Johnston was completely unnerved and refused to remain in an unlighted room.

When the World news reporters arrived at the farm, they were disappointed that most of the family was away, with only Hannah Pigott at home, although Fred Johnson was due to return momentarily. Miss Pigott, who was described as a short, plumb girl of Irish appearance with large inquiring eyes, was more than willing to detail what she had seen: “I was in the cow stable milking about 9 o’clock, when I heard the cow moan and looking up, I saw something white in the calf pen, which is just off the cow stable. I was not frightened then because I thought it was only my imagination, and I went on milking. Pretty soon, I looked up again and saw it quite plain, and held up the lantern to get a better view when it disappeared. While I was wondering whether I could be brave enough to go into the calf pen with the lantern and see what was there, the figure appeared right near the boards which divide the calf pen from the cow stable.”

Miss Pigott continued: “It was like a person with a lady’s face, but I know it was a man because it had short black curly hair. It was looking right at me and smiling as if it wanted to say something nice to me. It had on what seemed like a long white gown, low-cut about the shoulders, and his neck was bare down to the top of the gown. It was only a few feet away from me, and I saw it as plainly as I see you now. I was so badly scared that I ran out of the stable as fast as I could. When I got to the house, I told them what I had seen but they would not believe me. After a while, the boys went out to the stable to look, but they did not see anything that night. The next night at about the same time the boys were in the stable, and the ghost appeared again, and the third night they saw it again. I did not go near the barn after seeing the spirit the first time.”

Miss Pigott was convinced that no one could have entered the cow stable door without attracting her attention while she was milking. Definitely she did not believe the figure was a flesh and blood human being, as a live person could not disappear so quickly. “Some people claim that there are no spirits, and I never thought so before, but I do now,” she said. She also related the information that a clock in the house had stopped completely on the night of the Thomas Crawford death, and the first appearance of the ghost. Several attempts were made to restart the clock without success, but upon the burial of Crawford, it began running again, and continued without incident.

By the time Miss Pigott had finished relating her own experience, Fred Johnston had arrived home, and offered to take the newsmen out to the barn where they could see the scene of the weird events for themselves. Fred Johnston was 20, the same age as Hannah, and he stated: “We did not believe Hannah, when she rushed into the house that night and cried that she had seen a man dressed in white in the stable. I told her that it was all a scheme of her own to get rid of the milking, but she seemed so worked up, that we decided to go out and look. Albert went with me and we looked all through the cow stable and the calf pen, but saw nothing of any ghost. After completing the chores, we went back to the house. The next night, Hannah refused to go near the stable so Albert went out to milk the cows. While he was milking, I attended to the horses. A passageway leads from the horse stable to the cow stable along the western wall and immediately behind the cows is the calf pen. As I was coming through the passage with a fork of hay, I caught sight of a figure in white standing some distance back from the opening into the cow pen and just behind the low partition which subdivides the pen. It seemed quite tall but had no head. I stopped still and called to Charley who was in the horse stable “Come here, I want to show you something.” Albert, who was milking, also saw the figure. While we were looking at it, the figure disappeared. We decided all three to go in and search the pen, which we did. We looked in every hole and corner with the lantern and saw nothing. There is a small door in the northeast corner of the calf pen, leading to the pig pen, but this was fastened. The only other opening through which a person could escape was the one through which we have seen the apparition, a hole about four feet square. We were right at this opening all the time until we went in to search the pen. We saw nothing further there that night.”

Fred Johnston elaborated on the third visitation: “The next night, I milked the cows with the lantern near me, and while I milked I looked into the pen several times but saw nothing. When I had finished, we decided to stay in the barn a while to see whether anything would happen, so Bill (Fred’s oldest brother), and Charley and I sat down in the horse stable and waited.”

“After we had been there about half an hour, I looked into the cow stable, but could see nothing. Charley brought the lantern to the door and held it up so we could see in the cow stable and even through the opening into the calf pen, but there was nothing unusual there. We went back into the horse stable and waited a few minutes longer and then we all went in together taking the lantern with us, Albert having by this time joined us. I was in the lead with my brothers right behind me and as I reached the end of the passage, the thing appeared standing just within the opening to the calf pen. We all saw it, and all stopped still, except Bill, who ran back through the horse stable, and out of the back in fright.”

“The figure was about six feet tall, and appeared in a white gown, which extended down below the boards behind which it stood. Its head would have reached the top of the opening if it had been standing erect, but it was considerably stooped. The apparition had long whiskers and long moustache, quite grey, and the face was creased like that of an old man. It was staring straight at us, and we could see it as plain as in day. The eyes were blue and the white about the eyes was very prominent. A cap which looked very much like a night cap that old women wore in the old times was pulled down nearly to the eye brows. The cap was flat on top, and had a band across the forehead near the edge. The whiskers were long and wavy. The neck seemed bare right down to the gown which was hung quite low across the breast and shoulders. The features were ghastly white.”

“Bill’s wife told me to speak to it when it appeared again, so I decided to do so. I said: ‘Hello,’ just as if I was talking to any other person. ‘What brought you here?’ The spirit muttered something in reply which we could not understand. Then I said, ‘What do you want here?’ The figure commenced talking at once, never taking its eyes off us all the time. The only words I understood were: “Crawford,” “land” and finally “and.” We saw its lips moving and also saw its teeth. When it commenced talking, it reached out one hand and rested it on the top board of the pen opening. The back of the hand was towards us. It looked like a human hand. I noticed the fingernails. When the spectre moved its arms, I noticed the white folds about the arm move also. The sleeve seemed to be very big. Just as the figure uttered the word “and” it disappeared. It did not go down or up, back or to either side, but just seemed to fall to pieces.”

“Charley was still behind me when the object disappeared. We immediately climbed into the pen with the lantern and thoroughly searched the pen but saw nothing again. I am sure it was no human being trying to frighten us, because there was no way a person could get out of the pen. The only other door from the pen led into the pig pen, but that was fastened and anyway a man would not have had time to get across the partition to the door before we were in the pen and would have seen him. We heard no noise at any time except the voice of the ghost. I have several times looked in the direction of the calf pen when in the stable, but have never seen anything.” When questioned about the possibility of the ghost being his late uncle, Fred Johnston stated that although he had not seen his uncle for a number of years and remembered his appearance quite distinctly, the ghost did not look like him at all. Nevertheless, Johnston still felt that somehow the ghost was his uncle, who had come back to tell them what to do about the property he owned. “I think after all, it will be a good thing for us, as it may make us live better lives,” Fred concluded.

Naturally, it was incumbent upon the part of the newspaper to try to offer some sort of explanation to its readers, so it enlisted an anonymous theosophist and Dr. John S. King of the Canadian Society of Psychical Research to comment. The theosophist raised the question of the existence of different states of matter and the reluctance of people in the West to accept the possibility that consciousness could exist apart from the physical body. He (or she) figured that scientists would write the whole affair off, as an example of collective hallucination. He stated: “Had the Cavan story been invented, for example, the plotters would have aimed to make the story as consistent as they could with itself. They would never have declared that the apparition had a different appearance each time it was seen. The story, as it has been said, bears on the face of it, good evidence that it was not fabricated.”

Dr. King, meanwhile, after expressing the typical caution of an academic about not wanting to express an opinion without careful examination of all of the facts, went on to say that it was possible that some member of the Johnston family was unconsciously possessed of the powers of a physical medium to whom the unusual manifestations might be traced. He asserted that it was quite possible Thomas Crawford had somehow returned, as his research had led him to conclude that the real ego could depart the body and appear somewhere else, many miles away.

There is a strange postscript to this story that at first glance appears to explode the tale as a hoax, but on careful examination may prove exactly the opposite. Six days later, a small piece appeared in the back pages of the Toronto Globe & Mail. It appears that at least two other newspapers ran the Toronto World article. Fred and Charlie Johnston, paid a call on a solicitor named G.N. Gordon, wondering if legal action could be taken against the newspapers, and trying to disown at least half of the story. Significantly, they did not disown all of the story, admitting they had seen a strange figure without a head, but they could not say what it was. The solicitor advised them to demand a correction from the local papers. It appears that the family may have found themselves in the glare of unwanted publicity and like so many before and since, attempted to water down the story. Farmers in this day and age who have had crop circles on their land, or monsters wandering about their fields, soon tire of the gawking sightseers and want nothing more than to go back to work.

Curiously, there was a sidebar in the original account, stating the Johnstons were not knowledgeable about the workings of newspapers, and that Fred Johnston who related the vivid account, manifested no interest in the pains taken by the reporter to get down on paper everything he said. He merely wondered what they would do with all the notes and expressed the opinion it would likely be the talk of Toronto when they heard about it. If we assume the whole thing was a complete hoax or practical joke, it surely must have occurred to the participants that once it got out, no one in the area would trust their word again and their once sterling reputation would be in shreds. Therefore why start the story in the first place? Why let reporters take photographs and write a story for the papers? Boredom? There was no apparent financial gain. Something had to have happened in the subsequent six days. Perhaps the only way of stopping the unwanted attention was to water down the story to the point of attenuation and hope the whole thing would go away. If they totally disowned every detail, then the papers could charge the Johnstons with public mischief and sue them for damages, or at the very least make them laughingstocks. Then too, there is the odd detail cited by Dr. King, that of consistency. Why make a fake story more complicated than necessary? And why didn’t Hannah accompany her brothers to retract her statements as well? Could it be that she totally disagreed with them, but was afraid to challenge them? The Johnstons were members of the local Presbyterian church. In the early 20th century, many clergymen would take a dim view of members of their congregation consorting with spirits or even admitting the spirits existed. In short, the family would have a great deal to lose talking about their experiences. Fred Johnston may well have been taken to task by his father and older brothers for talking to reporters in the first place.

And so the matter has rested for the last 98 years or so. By this time, no doubt, all of the principal witnesses in the case have joined Thomas Crawford in the Great Beyond. It would be interesting to discover whether any of the buildings are still in existence, or if there are any sons or daughters of the Johnstons still living in the area (likely in their ‘80s or ‘90’s today). As hauntings appear to have no time limits, there could have been manifestations at a later date, assuming the facts as originally stated were true. Hannah Pigott was perhaps a bit old at 20 to be a typical poltergeist agent, but nevertheless, she was adopted, and the first to see the ghost. It could be that her belief that she had seen a ghost could have “infected” her brothers to do likewise. As we have seen with the haunted house in 1909 Edmonton, apparitions have been known to communicate with varying degrees of success. Other features seem awfully elaborate for a hoax, - the way the figure disintegrated, the variations in the positions where the manifestations occurred, the suggestion of color in the eyes of the apparition, the vocalization, and even the location in a cowshed. Why appear in the cowshed, instead of the main house? Perhaps it might have been due to the electromagnetic force lines, or the inexperience of the ghost in projecting himself where he wanted to be. If genuine, the ghost may have left at high speed, with the Johnstons resembling statues from his point of view (thus conveying the effect that the figure had vanished, to an observer stuck in normal space-time).

There is a good deal more to all this than meets the eye even after nearly a century interval. There is some reason for assuming that the events were substantially correct as reported. This now obscure incident seems to provide a good deal of circumstantial evidence for the likelihood of human survival after death and the ability to communicate with the living.