Instantly afterward, strange things started occurring in the Teeds’ house. Everyone living there, including Olive and Daniel, Daniel’s brother, and the Teeds’ two young children, heard unexplained knocking and banging and unidentifiable muffled voices during the night, and on two occasions Cox’s skin became hot, red, and unnaturally swollen.
Due to the inexplicable events of that evening, Daniel Teed resolved that he would have the family physician, Dr. Caritte, in attendance the following night. When the doctor arrived on the scene in preparation for the violent attacks, he examined Esther thoroughly. While a doctor was visiting Cox to study her condition, he heard scraping and saw letters form in the plaster wall, spelling out “ESTHER COX YOU ARE MINE TO KILL.” He decided to stay in the house to investigate what had caused this strange phenomenon and made detailed observations of other evidence of poltergeist activity.
When Dr. Caritte came back the next evening, he admitted that what seemed to be afflicting Esther was a phenomenon beyond his medical understanding. But as he knew she was experiencing the signs or symptoms of nervous excitement, he had brought her a powerful sedative, the only thing that he could possibly prescribe.
The effect of Dr. Caritte’s bromide was completely different than what he had hoped for. As soon as the drug had eased Esther into a deep slumber, the noises began, louder than they had ever been. It sounded as though someone were up on the roof, attempting to pound his way into the house by means of a heavy sledgehammer. The doctor retreated shortly after midnight, and as he walked away down the street, he could still hear the powerful blows shaking the Teed home.
The disturbances continued in this manner for three weeks, with Dr. Caritte attending Esther three times a day, although his attempts to help her were in vain. Then, one night, the girl fell into a trance and spewed out the whole story of how she had escaped an attempted assault on her honor. Bob McNeal, a man who had worked with Daniel and John Teed and William Cox at the Amherst shoe factory, had arrived at the Teed home one evening and requested the pleasure of Esther’s company on a buggy ride. He had only laughed when she had expressed her reluctance at going for a ride when the sky looked so black.
They had not ridden far when McNeal pulled into a wooded area outside of Amherst. He had wanted her to get down from the buggy and go with him into the woods. She had refused. Suddenly, McNeal leaped out of the buggy, jerked a pistol from a coat pocket, and leveled it at her breast. Either she came with him into the woods or he would kill her. Esther told him not to be a fool.
Her honor could not be bought by the sight of a madman waving a pistol at her. McNeal cursed her with a foul stream of profanity. He cocked the hammer of the pistol, and for an awful moment, she wondered if he might not make good on his threat. Then the sound of wagon wheels began to creak toward them; another couple had sought the cover of the woods.
McNeal thrust the pistol back into a pocket and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Sullenly he stared at her, his eyes telling of terrible embarrassment and violent anger. He cracked the reins over the horses’ backs and drove at a breakneck speed back toward the village. On the way home, it had begun to rain, but as if to punish her for not appeasing his lust, McNeal refused to put the hood of the buggy over them. He delivered her, soaking wet, to the Teed household at ten o’clock that night.
The family had known nothing of Esther’s secret until that moment. When Esther regained consciousness, Jane told her what she had said, and Esther confessed that it was all true. Interestingly, McNeal had not been seen since the night that he had tried to seduce Esther. He had not reported for work at the shoe factory the morning after the attempted attack, and his landlady said that he had paid for his lodging and left.
Evidently, shame for what he had tried to do to Esther and fear of the consequences had driven McNeal out of Amherst. He could not have known that Esther had not told her brother-in-law (who was his foreman at the shoe factory), or her sisters Olive and Jane. Esther had kept the memory of that terrible night tightly repressed and bottled up inside her.
In January 1879 Esther moved in with another local family, but the manifestations around her continued and were witnessed by many people, some of whom conversed with the “ghost” by questioning and rapped answers. Some were curious and sympathetic; others believed Esther herself to be responsible for the phenomena, and she met with some hostility locally.
Esther was frequently slapped, pricked and scratched by the “ghost,” and on one occasion was stabbed in the back with a clasp knife. Attention in the event expanded once the news spread, and in late March Esther spent some time in Saint John, New Brunswick, where she was investigated by some local gentlemen with an interest in science. By now, several distinct “spirits” were apparently associated with Esther and communicating with onlookers via knocks and rappings. “Bob Nickle,” the original “ghost,” claimed to have been a shoemaker in life, and others identified themselves as “Peter Cox,” a relative of Esther’s, and “Maggie Fisher.”
After the visit to Saint John, Esther spent some time with the Van Amberghs, friends with a peaceful farm near Amherst and then returned to the Teeds’ cottage in the summer of 1879, whereupon the phenomena broke out again. It was at this point that Walter Hubbell (an actor with an interest in psychic phenomena) arrived, attracted by the publicity surrounding the case, and moved into the Teed cottage as a lodger to investigate the phenomena.
Hubbell spent some weeks with Esther and her family, and reported having personally witnessed flying and moving objects, fires, and objects appearing from nowhere (this included silverware, pins, and needles spontaneously flying through the air and burning matches inexplicably dropping from the ceiling), and claimed that he saw phenomena occur even when Esther herself was in full view and obviously unconnected with them.
In addition, Esther was attacked by pins and needles that appeared in midair and flung themselves at her. When she fled the house for a nearby church, the banging sounds followed her, and when she fled to a barn, the falling matches ignited its hay. After this, Esther was imprisoned for a month as an arsonist, despite her and others’ insistence that spirits were to blame for the fires.
In prison her torments lessened, and sometime after she was released from prison and married they ended altogether. In 1888, Walter Hubbell published his diary of events in the Esther’s house, later expanded into a popular bookselling at least 55,000 copies.
As to what might have caused the poltergeist activity, experts on such phenomena have suggested that the trauma of Esther’s rape might have either attracted a violent spirit or enabled Esther’s mind to produce the poltergeist effects.
Skeptics, nevertheless, dismiss the stories about Esther Cox as nothing but “tall tales.”
Sources: Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits, and Haunted Places by Brad Steiger; The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena by Patricia D. Netzley; Wikipedia