An impulsive decision to join a local ghost tour resulted in one of the best evenings I have had in a long time. My friend “Lisa” and I both grew up hearing the ghost stories of Pictou. Lisa was born and raised in town and I first started visiting well before my first birthday.
The tour was lead by Pictou’s real deal psychic Dolores Dagenais. We had not met before, but both Lisa and I found her end of tour tarot readings spot on.
The tour started on the replica of The Hector, a bedraggled ship that dropped 189 Scottish settlers in Pictou in 1773. The replica ship is less than 30 years old, but has managed to pick up some creepy occurrences nonetheless. There seems to be the shade of a man who likes to rattle around the lower decks, moaning and generally making a nuisance of himself. One interpretation is it may be the ghosts of some of the craftsmen who built the ship and have since passed. I got a different impression. I think the ghost is there periodically but he is tied to the land the Hector Heritage Quay is built on. I think in his era he was both a sailor and worked at the shipyard so many generations of Pictou families have poured their working lives into. The ghost told me he had seen many a ship launched into Pictou Harbor in his time. Now he just likes messing with people.
Visible from the deck of the Hector was Brown ‘s Point the alleged original landing spot of the Hector. It became the lavish residence of Edward Mortimer, a timber merchant of means who showed up in the late 1780’s. Mortimer lost his fortune and died destitute. The story goes a modern man was walking his dog along the Jitland trail (previously railroad tracks) when he saw a despondent old man seated in a park bench morbidly staring out into the harbor. The old gent was wearing a coat with tails. The dog walker was worried enough about the old man to approach him and ask if the old fella was okay. However as he approached the figure, it was gone. Dolores’s take on it was the old man was the shade of Edward Mortimer who was still grieving the loss of his fortune and palatial home. I agreed with her on this one as Mortimer told me he “had been foolish” with his money and lost it to “speculation”.
Sometimes locals report hearing the cries of an infant as they walk the shoreline of Pictou harbor. In the 1800’s the body of an infant was found floating near the shore of the harbor. It was never identified, nor determined who the baby belonged to. The additional information I got about that incident was that a young girl from town had gotten pregnant by a married man. She hid the pregnancy, had the baby, a boy and exposed him at low tide so that the shame of the pregnancy wouldn’t ruin the lives of all concerned. I think the baby boy started crying when the cold water of the incoming tide reached him.
It was an all too common tale. Today few people would experience that level of shame around an unplanned pregnancy. It was a completely different story 100 years ago in Pictou. There is well known story about one of my great aunt’s who got pregnant at age 19 by one of many brothers of a particular family in town. She met the man at work. We know who the father was and anyone of that generation knew which family the resulting child came from by observing a strong resemblance to his uncles. Nonetheless, he was never acknowledged by that family. The depth of shame brought to my family was so severe that both the 19-year-old mother and the baby boy were locked up in the attic of the family home for a full year as punishment for the shame her pregnancy and child brought upon the rest of her family. Astonishingly by modern standards, that was considered a just punishment. (I am only sharing this sans names because the major players are long dead.)
Our next stop was a wooden gazebo at the base of a grassy slope that lead to the street above the waterfront. It has long been used as a bandstand. Roll back time about 100 years and it was an octagon shaped farmers market. At the top of the slope I did a general scan of the space and asked to be shown how it was when the market operated. At first all I heard was the chatter of commerce and community. Then floated out the plaintive strains of a violin. It was played by the same bony old man each week. He always perched in the same spot and played. Imagine my surprise when Lisa told me of an archival photo of the old market published in the local paper years prior that she had saved. There was an old man playing a violin and the blurb of text below the photo said he played every week. Confirmation is seldom do quick.
A tour member was sent down the slope with a K2 meter. She heard something she didn’t recognize, but the meter didn’t register anything. However Lisa had felt a non-existent hand grasp lightly at her arm on our way up the slope and asked me if anything was going on next to a particular tree. Well yes, the 30-something shade of a man from 1952 was puking his guts out, supporting himself with one arm against the trunk. The ghost was quite unsteady on his feet, so the idea he may have reached for Lisa’s arm made sense. Like many places Pictou has a long history with the demon drink. Plenty of rum running in the history of the town. A few stories about bathtub gun and illicit whisky sales also come to mind.
Our next stop was the former Lorraine Hotel, which has been the private residence of the Porter family since the early 1800’s. In it’s hotel days it was the terminus of the stage coach service in town. First thing I picked up from outside the building were the sort of bordello activities that seemed focused on the third floor of the home. When I eventually made it up to the third floor I stepped into a cramped attic room whose ceilings confirm to the original roof line. At one time it was full of three metal crib beds often seen in poor men’s whorehouses. Last time I saw beds like that was in the sweltering attic room of General Lee’s headquarters during the battle of Gettysburg during the U.S. Civil War. Rounded metal head and foot of the bed with flaking white paint. The process was sped up by the athletics of the ever shifting clientele.
The Porter family home had clearly belonged to Roman Catholics for a long, long time. Beautiful old wooden crucifixes in many rooms, pre -Vatican II books about the Catholic faith and a tiny holy water font affixed to the door trim of the former crib room. Consequently I burst out laughing when the ghost of one of the working girls informed me in no uncertain terms that the family could put up as many crucifixes and splash around as much holy water as they wanted but it wouldn’t rid them of her or her colleagues.
Since ghosts tend to make themselves known more easily in rooms with only a few people in them instead of large groups Lisa and I hung back and chatted with current owner Dave Porter both on the ground level and the second floor. Before going in we had been told a paranormal group had evaluated the house last fall and some of what they had come up with. The ghost of a female piano player likes to tickle the ivories and then cross the hall into what now serves as a dining room. Dave confirmed that in the past that room had been a parlor. Funny thing though I saw the spectral piano player as a man. Oh, that would be one of Dave’s great uncle’s. The piano still plays itself sometimes regardless of the lack of any visible occupant in the room. Back when it was the stagecoach stop the piano room was a bar. The crabby old ghost of a man deep in his cups wasn’t pleased with our presence.
Up on the second floor things got more active. As I entered one bedroom called the orange room for the color of it’s walls the middle aged ghost of a maritime commander who had just removed his blue uniform coat and stretched his legs out on the bed was downright peeved I had barged into HIS room. He started yelling at me. ” What the hell do you think you are doing in here! Get out! ” Not very original, but absolutely sincere.
Dave told me during the rooming house days of the home many soldiers had stayed in the orange room. He mentioned both World Wars but I saw mostly young, scared soldiers from World War I. Suddenly it was like flipping the pages of a book very quickly and each page had the face of a young man heading to the trenches. It was rather overwhelming.
One of the well-known tragedies of the stagecoach era was when a 17 -year-old girl died outside the front door in a stagecoach accident. Her ghost told me she had been coming to town to wed her fiance. That little detail was later confirmed by Dave’s wife Ann.
It is well known that the ghost of a little boy likes to play with living children in the Porter House. Prior investigators determined he was not affiliated with the house but had lived in the surrounding neighborhood. After the investigations last fall a small child’s hand print showed up above a fireplace in a second floor bedroom. The thing is a child young enough to have such a small hand, wouldn’t have the height to reach the spot on the wall where the hand print appeared. I saw the little boy. He was certainly from a different era as he was dressed in a sailor suit with short pants. He is harmless and liked to play with Dave’s uncles when they were young boys.
The old 1895 Pictou post office has seen a number of private tenants come and go. Honestly the place has not had much luck being re-purposed in recent years, but there is currently a lot of major restoration going on. One interesting architectural feature of the building is it’s huge chimney that has a window in the middle of it. It is the only building in North America that boasts one. At least this time I finally figured out the male presence I have been sensing behind that chimney for years was that of Pictou’s first postmaster whom Dolores generously described as a serious person. Try a humorless, grim curmudgeon whose desk looked out of the window in the chimney at the top of the list office. His ghost scolded me as if I was interrupting very important work by observing him through time.
Our tour wrapped up in the current gravel parking lot that in years past hosted The Wallace Hotel. Dolores recounted the story of a fellow best known as “The Prince of Pictou.” William A.H. Villers Mansel was a flamboyant character that threw around a lot of money from an unknown source until he managed to drink himself to death at age 33 in 1811. Rumor had it he was the illegitimate son of King George IV of England. The locals of the era figured Mansel was full of hot air. Then an English ship arrived in Pictou Harbor a few months after his death. Officials came ashore and installed an iron fence around his simple grave. Dolores pointed out in iron lore such a fence was intended to keep the dead in their graves where they belonged. It didn’t work with old Billy. He was seen 70 years after his death roaming the halls of the Wallace Hotel on numerous occasions. Fast forward to the last couple years and Dolores had an encounter with him herself, 200 years after his death. I was entertained by the vision I had of him trailing a languid hand along the fine wooden wainscoting in the hallways of the hotel. He was also making disparaging if knowledgeable comments about other decor details. I suppose the finest Pictou had to offer simply couldn’t impress a dissipated bastard prince.
(c)2019. Lynne Sutherland Olson. All rights reserved.