Half a century before the Fox Sisters showed up on the scene to propel mainstream spiritualism onto the populace of America, there was a much lesser known haunting taking place in the cellar of a small frontier settlement, named Sullivan in Maine. Though it was extensively documented at the time, the many eye-witness testimonies fell to the back pages of history. Despite its relatively unknown status, it remains as one of, if not the very first documented cases of a haunting in North America and is a story that culminates in an event that was utterly bizarre.
Immortality proved by the testimony of sense… – The original source of the documentation for the Nelly Burtler hauntings written by Abraham Cummings, the travelling evangelist,
Amazon – Nelly Butler: A documentary History – Reprint of the original source documents, along with footnotes detailing culturally sigfnificant or social notes, along with footnotes written by the original author.
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Nelly Butler Hauntings
In 1848, the Fox sisters practised their trade of mediumship in New York, igniting the imaginations of thousands and blazing a now oft travelled path. Despite their controversial practices and eventual confession of hoaxing, they are still considered by many as playing one of the main roles in the formation of popular spiritualism in North America and certainly amongst the most famous spiritualists the world over. Half a century prior to their headline grabbing public seances however and just 12 years after the penning of the US Constitution, a large portion of the population of a small coastal settlement in Maine bore witness to an equally bizarre occurrence. It was to culminate in one of the earliest and possibly even the very first, documented account of a Ghostly haunting in North America. Among accusations of Fraud, Witchcraft and demonism, the residents of the Blaisdell farmhouse in Sullivan communicated with the specter of a local dead woman known as Nelly Butler. Unlike the attention grabbing headlines of the Fox Sisters, it fell into obscurity, yet at the time it was spoken of as “one of the most extraordinary ghost stories on record.”. This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
Perched at the head of Taunton Bay in Hancock county, Franklin, Maine, was an East Coast settlement with a frontier personality. Founded in 1764, it’s soil was harsh and rocky, making farming difficult and only yielding results after the undertaking of back-breaking work. What it lacked in natural agricultural productivity, it made up for in it’s strong, densely wooded areas, allowing for a handful of sawmills to coexist without any local tensions, producing lumber for buildings, ships and railroad sleepers. Throughout the colonial era, ship masts were a solid source of trade across Maine and sawmills took advantage of the tall pines to secure contracts with the British Navy allowing for industry to grow and flourish. Sooner rather than later however, the independent spirit of frontier, along with a host of political disagreements and social tensions led residents to push back against the British monopolisation of ship lumber and eventually, to revolution.
Following the revolution, Franklin was a settlement like many other in Maine, it’s farmers watched the incoming, unpredictable winters with anxiety, the land was cheap, but the living could certainly be rough, with predators, difficult soil, harsh frosts, pest infestations and drought just a fraction of the hurdles that kept many holdings at subsistence levels. Religion gained traction through a myriad of revivals and evangelical preachers who sought to bring new forms of worship to the congregationalist majority, from Quakers to Methodists as well as a newfound interest into the exploration of the divine, pathing the way for the spiritualist influx during the 19th Century.
Franklin was then, like any other frontier settlement of North America. At once small and tightly knit, a place where shouldering your neighbours burdens was as important as personal prosperity, yet fractured and socially complex. Set in this landscape of an unforgiving, uncertain future, the story of Nelly Butler began.
The Life and Death of Nelly Butler
David and Joanna Hooper had married and settled in East Franklin, Maine during the latter half of the 18th Century. David Hooper had fought in the American Revolution and now a veteran, he set about family business with Joanna Hooper who birthed nine children in the nine years from 1775 to 1784. The second of these children was a girl named Eleanor who was born on 25th April, 1776. Known locally as Nelly, at the age of 19, she met George Butler a young sea captain whose father, Moses, had also fought in the American revolution and was regarded as one of the first English settlers of Franklin. They owned a saw-mill and their family was generally well-to-do. The pair married and lived together on Butler Point in Franklin, a heavily wooded area lying on the Eastern banks of Egypt Bay. Two years after their marriage, Nelly fell pregnant, however, she became the unfortunate victim of a complicated childbirth and died on 13th June, 1797 less than a day after the passing of her newborn baby. She was buried on Butler Point in an unmarked grave. For the now widowed George Butler, life stood relatively still for a few years, until the winter of 1799 fell across Maine, bringing with it not only bleak, cold nights, but also a rather peculiar and controversial series of events that would see his life flipped upside down and seemingly caught in a cycle of union and loss.
The Blaisdell family was headed by Abner Blaisdell, another veteran of the American Revolution. He married Mary Card, but after her untimely death, he remarried Mary Simpson and the couple established themselves in Sullivan, Maine, a small settlement lying 10 miles to the South East of Franklin on the Eastern side of Taunton Bay. It was a tight knit rural community that consisted of only around 20 families. Just like Franklin, it too thrived on the ship building economy and had several mills, powered by the streams that forked and spidered throughout the area. Abner and Mary Blaisdell had seven children, five boys and two girls. The first girl was named Hannah and was born in 1780 and the second, Lydia, was born five years later in 1785.The Blaisdell house was situated in the North of the town on a 100 acre farm plot and Lydia and Hannah spent their days sorting and picking wool fleece in the cellar of the family home. Like many at the time, Abner was a religious man and the family followed in step, praying together and seeking to live their lives right in the eyes of God.
As the harsh, bleak winter of 1799 fell upon Sullivan, Lydia Blaisdell, almost 15 years of age, found herself in a severe struggle against a form of pestilence. Sick and lying in bed, her immune system was succumbing to a disease that held no prisoners and could very easily have taken her life. It was during this time of struggle that the first of several unusual encounters would occur in the Blaisdell farmhouse. Coming from the cellar, Lydia heard a series of knocking sounds. After a search of the cellar was conducted and no origin was found, Abner called the family together to pray, ensuring that whether or not the sound came from heaven or some other earthly hijinx, the Lord would eventually let them know either way.
It wasn’t long before the knocking sound progressed and the Blaisdell family begun hearing the voice of a woman coming from their cellar, always upon checking, they found no trace of intruder or hoaxer. As December turned to january and the new year passed, these peculiar visitations progressed a step further, leading to ghostly apparitions of a woman shrouded in white standing in the cellar and openly conversing with the Blaisdell family. This ghostly visage claimed to be the spirit of Nelly Butler, the very same Franklin woman, daughter of David and Joanna Hooper and wife of George Butler, deceased almost three years prior. This apparition appeared at first only to the Blaisdell family, but news like this spreads quickly in a small town and Nelly had some big plans that would require the belief of more than just the Blaisdells.
Lydia and George
For some time, possibly up to two years prior to the appearance of Nelly Butlers ghost in the cellar, Lydia Blaisdell and George Butler had been developing something of a relationship that appeared to be leaning towards courtship. This was opposed by Abner Blaisdell who took some disagreement with a 29 year old man knocking about with his 15 year old daughter. Commonly we see in history women marrying at far younger ages than today, however this was not the case in Maine in the late 1700s and fifteen was still unusually young, not to mention the age gap of the pair exacerbating matters. After conversing with the ghost in late december, it’s disembodied voice flitting around the cellar from corner to corner, Abner now saw a change of heart. Nelly Butler it seemed, not only condoned the marriage, but ordered it must happen. It was her divine mission.
“The parties must and would be joined. And what God hath joined together let no man put asunder.”
Who was he to stand in the way of God’s Will?
On January 1st, the ghost ordered Abner and Lydia to go and visit Moses Butler, father of George, to deliver her message that she wished the pair wed. The message was to be delivered alongside a verse from scripture, Mark 10 and specifically the lines:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,
and the two will become one flesh.
So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Lydia and her father made the perilous journey to Franklin, in a terrific snowstorm, crossing the precarious ice sheets of the frozen taunton River. Along the journey, Lydia became upset, apparently she too was not overly keen on the concept of marriage, especially one ordered from beyond the grave, however Nelly appeared to her, consoling her and spurring her forwards, through the storm. When they arrived at the house of Moses Butler however, they were to be told, in no uncertain terms that their journey had been in vain. Moses was himself also stoutly against the union. Abner insisted that it was the will of his deceased Daughter-in-law and that they came with her message, that the spirit had travelled with them and if they wished a miracle as further proof, that they should wish it and it would happen. As one might imagine, this went down about as well as a red coat in Boston and the pair were sent away, leaving Moses Butler in a state of disgust. As the minutes and hours after their departure passed however, he began having second thoughts. Why would Abner come all this way in such poor weather conditions, essentially risking his life to strike a proposal for a marriage that he himself had opposed for so long?
Lydia and her father returned home only in time to hear once again the familiar knocking coming from the cellar, announcing the arrival of Nelly Butler in their home once again. This time, Nelly wanted the messengers to go and see David Hooper, her own father and father-in law to George Butler, to arrange for him to come and see her spirit for himself. Not overly thrilled at having to trek another six miles in a snowstorm so soon after returning, the pair left it until the next morning to carry out Nellys latest orders.
On the morning of January 2nd, Lydia and Abner Blaisdell stepped out into the harsh winter weather once more to make the journey to the home of David Hooper in Franklin. This time, their expedition was successful and David Hooper agreed to visit the Blaisdell residence later that day to confirm the identity of his Daughter. They also visited George Butler at the same time, delivering the same message and inviting him also to visit his deceased wife in their cellar.
Upon their meeting with the apparition of Nelly Butler, we have the written testimony given by both men that shows their conviction and belief that what they saw, was indeed what Abner had described as the ghost of their deceased relative.
“By the request of the Specter, sent by two messengers, I went to Abner Blaisdell’s house, and by conversing with he, obtained such clear and irresistable tokens of her being the spirit of my own daughter, as gave me no less satisfaction than admiration and delight. She gave a reason satisfactory to me why she put me to the trouble of coming there instead of her coming to my house.”
The testimony of George Butler, who showed up at the Blaisdell home shortly after David Hooper had finished conversing with the spirit, proceeds much along the same lines.
“When I was called to talk with this voice, I asked, “Who are you?”. It answered, “I was once your wife.” The voice asked me, “Do you remember what I told you when I was alive?” I answered, “I do not really know what you mean.” The voice said, “Do you not remember I told you I did not think I should live long with you? I told you that, if you were to leave me I should never wish to change my condition, but that if I was to leave you, I could not blame you if you did.”
“This passed between me and my first wife, while she was alive, and there was no living person within hearing, but she and myself, and I am sure that this was never revealed to any person, and no living person could have told it to me before the voice did.
“There was something appeared to my view right before me, like a person in a winding sheet and her arms folded under the winding sheet, and on her arm there appeared to be a very small child. By this appearance I did not know possibly but I might be deceived., I reached out my left hand to take hold of it. I saw my hand in the middle of it, but could feel nothing. The same evening it appeared and disappeared to me three times.”
In his own testimony, Frederic Housoff, who apparently visited along with George, confirmed that he had seen George Butler place his hand on the apparition of Nelly Butler and “saw his hand pass through it.”
David Hooper took his experience at the Blaisdell home and his meeting with the deceased directly to Moses Butler, where he confirmed the truth to him. That the ghost of Nelly Butler had arisen in the cellar of the Blaisdell home, that he had spoken to it and that it’s wish was a divine order for the marriage of Lydia Blaisdell to george Butler. And so, with a heavy sigh, Moses Butler resigned to the inevitable. After all, who was he to stand in the way of Gods Will? On the 5th January, he set off towards Franklin to inform Abner that he would give the marriage his blessing. With both fathers now reluctantly on board, and it was with some reluctance, Abner apparently still treated George Butler with a level of disdain, all that was left to take care of was the marriage date, which was quickly set up to take place on Butlers Point, on May 29th, 1800.
As soon as the marriage was made public, dissenting voices began to appear. There were many in the local town that thought Lydia was attempting to dupe George Butler into marrying her, whilst others mulled over the possibility that Necromancy was at play and the spirit was nothing more than a demon, or demon familiar. When Sally Wentworth, Nelly’s skeptical sister visited the Blaisdell home on January 3rd along with her husband Moses Wentworth and George Butler, she said of the spirit:
“We heard the sound of knocking. Lydia spoke, and a voice answered, the sound of which brought fresh to my mind that of my sister’s own voice, in an instant, but I could not understand it at all though it was within the compass of my embrace, and, had it been a creature which breathed, it would have breathed in my face… I passed through the room which led to the cellar into another room, and there, I was much surprised when I plainly understood by the same kind of voice, still speaking in the cellar, these words, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
“From this time, I cleared Lydia as to the voice, and accused the devil.”
It was an opinion she would hold until her dying day. Her voice, she said, sounded like the voice of her sister not in health, but whilst she lay on her deathbed.
On the same day, Captain paul Simpson visited the cellar to witness the ghost on insistence by Paul Blaisdell, on of the Blaisdell sons. As was becoming customary by now, they went down into the cellar, put out the dim candlelight and waited for the knocks. Nelly rapped as expected and when Paul spoke to her, she replied the same words as those she spoke to Sally earlier that day.
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his paths strait. Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found. Call upon him while he is near.”
One might think that a ghostly visitation might conjure up a degree of fear in a superstitious population like that of Sullivan in 1800, but it seemed Nelly had a certain way with words,
“After a little discourse with her, their fears were entirely dissipated, and succeeded by a singular pleasure, so delightful was the mode of her address and conversation.”
In fact, Nelly would routinely reassure visitors to “Fear not” and Abraham Cummings, a travelling evangelist, theorised in a later letter on the subject that he believed the reason Nelly would knock to announce her presence, like that of a visitor to a front door, or of only answering once spoken to was to avoid startling anyone. This measure of thoughtfulness extended further according to Cummings, being also the reason Nelly would generally only appear in the cellar, to allow the Blaisdell family to retreat to their homely, comfortable rooms at will, without fear of a haunted spirit rudely gatecrashing their private chambers of rest and relaxation. In general this was a courtesy observed fairly faithfully by the spirit, however she did also appear in other spots around Sullivan on a handful of occasions, visiting houses as far as five miles from Blaisdell’s farm. Her apparitions however, were not always indoors. Paul Blaisdell testified to seeing the spirit in the fields around the Blaisdell house in the latter half of January.
“I particularly observed that she never touched the ground. Her raiment appeared as white as possible. The next evening she reproved me in the hearing of several persons because I had not spoken to her, and because I had spoken against her. She told me she had come on God’s errand and that, if I opposed her, I opposed him who sent her. The spirit asked me if I lived in such a manner as I would wish to die.”
In the five months between ordering the marriage of Lydia Blaisdell and George Butler, until the day of the union, news of the spirit began to spill from Sullivan Harbour and spread around the local towns. People would come from the many townships dotted around Hancock County to see the apparition of Nelly Butler, gathering in the Blaisdell’s cellar, crammed in to see what all the fuss was about. She routinely conversed with visitors for upwards of two or three hours at a time on all manner of topics. Not all of the visitors were so readily willing to believe, however, and many who came to see the events for themselves were either sceptical of any spiritual activity full stop, or were actively hostile to the idea of a ghostly apparition, suspicious that it might be some kind of demon or demon familiar, conjured up by a form of necromancy or witchcraft by Lydia. There were other voices too within the town that suspected Lydia of a rather more straightforward, earthly based deception in order to ensnare George Butler into a communion and they were growing louder by the day.
As for Lydia, she herself still held her own reservations, which she recounted to friends and culminated in her machinations to run away before the marriage could take place. The Blaisdell’s had relatives in York, and she devised a plan to jump a ship docked in Taunton Bay to go and stay with these distant family members. She told George of the plan, breaking off any relationship they once had and their current engagement. George, who by now was very much behind the idea of marriage to the young Lydia, protested this idea, but it was no good. It would take a whole lot more to keep her in Franklin. And a whole lot more is what she got. Nelly Butlers ghost spoke to Lydia in front of several witnesses, urging her to stay, and insisting that if she were to sail, “Her afflictions would sail with her”. It would all be for nought. And so, as the spirit wished, Lydia Blaisdell and George Butler were married on 29th May, the two families gathered on Butlers point to carry out the union. With her wishes fulfilled, the ghost of Nelly Butler may well have shrunk off into the corners of an unspoken history, spurned on only by rumours and the hearsay of the local townsfolk. Nelly however was only just getting started.
On the day after Lydia and George were married, Nelly took it upon herself to visit the newlyweds with a message of prophecy. Lydia, she claimed, was not long for this world. She went on to to explain that Lydia would fall pregnant and give birth to just one child before an untimely death would take her, just as it had happened to herself And with the prophecy delivered, the cellar of the Blaisdell home fell quiet for a while. But not the voices of the local dissenters, who still whispered about Nelly, was she a twisted scheme devised to ensnare George Butler by Lydia, or was she a demonic presence? Rumours floated through the wooded hills and farmlands of Hancock County and showed little sign of slowing.
After a 63 day absence, the ghostly activity launched into overdrive. On at least 29 occasions in August of 1800, she was witnessed by over one hundred people. Always the ghost would invite the witnesses into the cellar, Abner Blaisdell would blow out the candlelight, plunging the room into darkness and the visitation would commence, opening as it always did with a series of knocks from Nelly Butler to announce her arrival.
During these visitations, she was not always visible to everyone in the room at the same time. At times she never appeared at all, on others she appeared only to a select few, whilst others, standing mere feet away saw nothing. She always appeared wearing a glowing white dress, or shroud, at times she wore a cap and others not, sometimes she was seen cradling the body of her dead baby in her arms. Her visage was described by Mary Gordon in her later testimony.
“At first the apparition was a mere mass of light, then grew into a personal form, about as tall as myself. We stood in two ranks about four or five feet apart. Between these ranks she slowly passed and re-passed., so that any of us could have handled her. When she passed by me, her nearness was that of contact, so that, if there had been a substance, I should have certainly felt it. The glow of the apparition had a constant tremulous motion.”
Her voice would flitter across the room, instantaneously moving from a distance ten or twelve feet from the spectators, at others leaning in to their ears and speaking next to their heads.
All of this carry on invited many skeptics, some professed that the voice of the spirit was merely the voice of Lydia Blaisdell, however Nelly Addressed this directly by sending Lydia away in front of these skeptical enquirers.
“About fourteen persons, by the direction of the Specter, went into the cellar. As soon as they were there, the specter said to Lydia Blaisdell, “Go up and sit with others on the kitchen hearth, that this company may know that it is not you who speaks.” After she was gone up, the ghost conversed with the company on several topics suited to authenticate her mission.”
Likewise, Nelly spoke of her past life to others in an attempt to win over their belief.
“She mentioned several incidents of her past life, known only to her husband, as he declared, and asked him if he remembered them. He said, “Yes.” She asked him he had told them. He answered, “No.” and of such a nature were these incidents as to render it utterly improbable the he ever should have mentioned them before.”
She told Abner Blaisdell that his father, who was sick, was “In heaven praising God with the angels”. In fact, he had died seven days prior, unbeknown to Abner at the time and later confirmed by his family in York that they had yet to send the news at all. She routinely invited people to stand as near as they pleased to her, to handle her if they wished and to not be afraid and to ask as many questions as they liked concerning her past life, apparently responding to them all with satisfactory answers.
The hauntings had reached a boiling point by mid-August. As more and more people crammed into the cellar to speak with Nelly, more too spoke in hushed tones of the devilry from the Blaisdell basement. As if to counter all this talk in the town of her spirit visitations being the work of the devil or of demonic witchcraft, now threatening to overshadow the events taking place there themselves, Nelly began preaching more and more on religious topics, confirming to onlookers that they were safe in her presence and had nothing to fear. On the first of August, when witness Paul Simpson asked her if she loved Christ, she replied “Yes I do” and begun singing Alleluias, a practice she now maintained. When on the 7th, Sarah Simpson asked her if she came from happiness or misery, she replied “I am from above and am come on God’s message”, breaking out in a chorus of more Alleluias. On the 4th of August, she addressed the topic directly with Thomas Urann, a skeptical local who had proclaimed to many around town that the spirit was the work of the devil. “You have often said that I am a devil or a witch.” She said whilst addressing him, “I am from above, praising God and the lamb.”
By the night of August 9th, things were getting a little rough down in the Blaisdell basement. A large crowd had gathered and many of them sought to confirm their belief that a fraud was being played out by the Blaisdell family. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and several people took it upon themselves to impersonate the familiar knockings of Nelly Butler. This eventually led to the undesirable elements of the crowd being removed from the situation by Abner Blaisdell. Paul Simpson Jr was one such skeptic who left disappointed after seeing the scenes that night. As he walked home however, he decided that his feeling of dissatisfaction would not dissipate unless he could uncover the deception. He returned to the farmhouse and once allowed in to the cellar by Abner, was invited to light a candle and search until his heart’s content. He gave the following account of his investigation
“I came out last and was careful and watched, sso that I was sure that no person went down. Also the door was fast. Then again we heard the sound of knocking. It was addressed, and conversation followed, in the midst of which Abner Blaisdell said to me “If you think any living person talks, go forward and grasp that person.” I went forward a few steps. But was so convinced that nobody was there, that I consider all further attempts as useless.”
He then saw the apparition of Nelly Butler and described it in a fairly interesting manner:
“I saw the apparition at first about two feet in height, but as it drew nearer to me, it appeared as tall as a person. I saw this appearance passing close by me and from five or six times. At last it diminished to about a foot in height and then vanished.”
Things had finally reached a head and the people of Franklin and Sullivan were no longer speaking quietly. Divisions sprang as different sides of the argument as to the veracity of the events were now outwardly spoken of and the events in the Blasidell cellar were the talk of the town. On the night of 13th-14th August, 47 people gathered to see the spirit of Nelly Butler. Never one to let the people down, Nelly had something special arranged for the masses, she sought to end the voices of dissenters once and for all. At one o’clock in the morning, she commanded the congregation to march to a neighbouring house belonging to one of the loudest skeptics in the village, James Miller. The walk covered two miles and on the journey, the group was ordered to file side by side, in groups of two singing the 84th Psalm as they walked. Nelly assured them she would follow behind the group as they walked. Several witnesses claimed to have seen her walking with them as they marched through the night, whilst others saw nothing. When they reached James Miller’s house, the crowd squeezed in through his front door, whilst Paul Blaisdell asked him if he would take him down to his cellar. Miller compiled and when he stood below the ground, the voice of Nelly Butler rang out around him. “I have come to let you know that I can speak in this cellar as well as in the other. Are you convinced?” Apparently, he was, as he too joined the group, now gathering outside his house awaiting the re-appearance of Nelly. Once she appeared, the spirit then commanded them to continue marching, she would walk alongside Lydia Blaisdell at the head of the parade, Lydia shrouded in a black cloak. This the spirit remarked, would finally put an end to the dissenting talk that Lydia was herself behind a nefarious scheme of deception or witchcraft. They then turned back to the Blaisdell farmhouse, where the bizarre march was to end. Several people, including many of the skeptical testified to seeing Lydia walk alongside the spirit singing a hymn as they shuffled along.
Following the parade, things began to settle down on Blaisdell Farm, but not before the ghost of Nelly Butler would command one last act. She ordered for her deceased child to be dug up and reburied closer to her own grave on Butler point, to enable them to both rise up to heaven together on Judgement Day. Over eighty people from four different towns gathered on the hillside to bear witness to the solemn affair as the remains of the newborn were moved 30 feet up Butlers point to be re-interred next to remains of Nelly Butler. For the most part, this ended the visitations for good, there was to be just one, final twist.
Throughout and despite all of the strange happenings of August and the following re-interment of Nelly’s newborn child in the autumn, Lydia and George had settled into their married life. They had moved in together and lived on Butlers Point in Franklin and Lydia had fallen pregnant with their first child who was expected in March of 1801. The child birth was not an easy one and just as the ghost of Nelly Butler had prophesied 10 months previously, neither Lydia nor the baby survived the ordeal. Both were buried alongside Nelly and child on Butlers Point.
Shortly after her death, George Butler placed all of her belongings into a boat and floating it from Butlers Point, set it ablaze. As it was pulled by the tides out across the bay, it unfortunately sailed directly passed the Blaisdell farm, who saw the move by George as an affront on their daughter. George, they assumed was cutting all ties with the memories of his deceased wife. This rift would continue, with Abner Blaisdell never forgiving George and eventually led to the splitting of the local church sixteen years later following an investigation into the affair, with members siding both Abner and George.
George went on to remarry for a third time to a woman named Mary Googins, the couple had four children together.
Nelly appeared only once more and it was to the wandering evangelist, Abraham Cummings. He had not been around for much of the events of the hauntings, though he had witnessed the voice speaking in January of 1800, but left feeling unimpressed. Upon his return to Sullivan however, he had found the situation irresistible. During the remainder of the haunting, he had collected all of the eye witness testimonies of the local people. He then published all of these testimonies along with a collection of relevant letters in a work that detailed the events surrounding Sullivan and Franklin and of Nelly Butler. In 1806, he had been alerted by two men that the Specter had been seen outside his house in the fields, going out to see for himself, he wrote of what he saw:
Looking toward an eminence twelve rods distance from the house, I saw there, as I supposed, one of the white rocks. This confirmed my opinion on their Specter, and I paid no more attention to it. Three minutes after, I accidently looked in the same direction, and the white rock was in the air, its form a complete globe, white with a tincture of red, like the damask rose, and its diameter about two feet.
“While my eye was constantly upon it, I went on four or five steps, when it came to me from the distance of eleven rods, as quick as lightning, and instantly assumed a personal form with a female dress.
“I went into the house and gave the information, not doubting that she had come to spend some time with us as she had before,. We went out to see her again, but to my great disappointment, she had vanished.”
The Nelly Butler haunting is a complicated event, with many social and religious threads. Proponents and believers cited how she appeared in both the day and night times, in the Blaisdell cellar, in open fields and in four other houses around Franklin, the house of James Miller, half a mile away, as well as of Sarah and Samuel Simpson, Josiah Simpson and Abraham Cummings, 1, 3 and 5 miles away. They mention all the times she openly invited people to approach her, to touch her and feel for themselves. How at times she appeared for some and not others, though they stood alongside one another in that dimly lit cellar.
It is fairly easy to point fingers towards Lydia, however, how would Lydia have known the vast amount of information needed to answer so many questions concerning Nelly Butlers life, some of which was extremely personal and intimate? And why would she order the re-interment of the child on Butlers Point?
On the other hand, dissenting voices find it all too easy to highlight the marriage as a key factor in a hoax designed to hoodwink the fathers into allowing a forbidden relationship. The travelling Evangelist Abraham Cummings was probably the spirits greatest sympathiser and took it upon himself to carefully document and transcribe the entire affair, however, one has to be aware of the religious perspective of the time. Cummings would have been evangelising in an age when materialism was rampant, for him, collecting the eye witness accounts of the Nelly Butler haunting and publishing them would have been an effort to back up his religious agenda and to counter the arguments that there was no immortal soul.
In the end, we are left with nothing but circumstantial evidence for either side. Despite this, it remains a fascinating tale and one that could well be the true origin for spiritualism in North America, preceding the accepted norm by over fifty years.
The truth of the matter will remain a mystery.
Jeremiah Bunker, one of the strongest skeptical voices at the time of the hauntings, said of the ghost of Nelly Butler,
“I thought then and ever since that the whole was a deception. For I cannot see how there could be such a clear personal shape, where no living person was.”