The story of the Burgess Ghost begins with the arrival of so many Irish to the areas around Westport, the Scotch Line, Black Lake, and Stanleyville, that it became known as the ‘Irish Invasion’.
This is the the home where the story took place, in the cold, bitter winter of 1935, at the home of Mr. John Quinn. John lived in the house with his wife, and two sons Michael age 13, and Stanley, 11.
Don Rennie, reporter for The Perth Courier, wrote a story on the Burgess Ghost in 1967:
“Strange occurrences were happening in 1935 at a farm in North Burgess just off the Narrows Locks road. Mr. John Quinn, his wife and two children, Michael, and Stanley, ages 13 and 11, reported innumerable phenomena taking place in their home. Stove lids, according to the Quinns, “danced” in the air, the teapot “jumped” off the stove into the wood box, three flat irons “walked” down a staircase and dishes “pranced” on the dining-room table. Word of this mysterious goings on spread quickly throughout the district. Although, perhaps skeptical, hundreds of persons from miles around flocked to the Quinn home.
On the Sunday after the reporting of the “ghosts” more than 100 cars arrived at the Quinn farm. Along with the cars a flotilla of cutters and sleighs dotted the white-capped farm. The snow fell incessantly and the thermometer dipped way below the zero mark.
Newsmen from across the country arrived and the CBC news from Toronto reported the strange events. Although the strange occurrences could not be readily explained many held doubts in their minds as the credulity of the phenomena. Believing that there had to be a reasonable explanation behind the occurrences, the Perth detachment of the OPP decided to hold an investigation.
On a Saturday afternoon, members of the force motored to the Quinn home, and inspected the building. Nothing strange occurred while they were there. That same evening Inspector Storey returned to the house. He remained there until Sunday morning along with about a dozen district men, sat in the house, speaking in hushed tones, but again nothing happened.
photo: members of the Quinn family, and the local police force
Mr. Quinn was unable to explain the strange occurrences that had been going on for the past couple of weeks. Pieces of beef he had placed in a barrel had been found littered throughout the house, he said, and the Wednesday before a window pane crashed for no apparent reason. He had not thought that too odd until it happened the very next evening.
Andrea Burke, a neighbouring farmer, declared that a bone thrown out of the home time and time again had always returned to the house for no explicable reason. Another neighbour, William Cordick, swore that he had seen three flat irons descend the Quinn’s staircase one after another.”
Who were these Irish Settlers?
Most, but not all of the Irish in North Burgess Township, came from County Down and County Armagh, and many came in the 1840s, to escape a horrible famine, that swept through Ireland like an unstoppable plague. A disease called Potato Blight ravaged their crops for nearly a decade, and during that time over a million died of starvation, and an equal number fled Ireland on ships sailing to Canada and the United States.
Most were tenant farmers, leasing their land; unable to pay their rent when their crops failed, and were evicted by ruthless landlords. They bundled up what little they had, and boarded ships headed for the new world.
Seven weeks was the average length of time spent at sea, and the conditions endured by these Irish immigrants were so terrible that the ships were nick-named ‘coffin ships’. The lice, ticks and fleas common in these over-crowded vessels were the ideal breeding grounds for the transmission of disease, and by 1847 an average of 50 passengers died each day of typhus on their voyage from Ireland.
The areas where this ‘wave’ of Irish settled in Lanark County:
These new settlers brought their traditions, customs, and stories with them to the new country. Stories and legends were passed down from father to son, and from mother to daughter. Tales from the old country were told in the evenings by the fire, and the one story that seemed to run up and down the concessions in North Burgess was the legend of the Irish Banshee.
The Banshee, or ‘Bean Sidhe’ is an Irish spirit, and her high-pitched wail foretells of a death in the family. It was said that each family had its own Banshee, and that they travelled with them from the old country. Some said that the family’s Banshee would stay in Ireland at the family’s estate, and mourn the dead. The settlers to the new land brought their vivid descriptions of the Banshees – some claiming that she was an old hag with red eyes, but others said she was a fair, pale Irish beauty with long red hair dressed in a flowing gown.
It’s been said that whoever hears her high and piercing shriek could be sure that there would be a death within 24 hours. Irish lore tells that the Banshee always wailed when a family member dies, even if the person had died far away, and news of their death had not yet come. The wailing of the banshee was the first warning to the household of the death.
When several banshees appeared at once, it was said to foretell of the death of someone prominent, or of an accidental or unintended death – often of a murder victim, a suicide, or a mother who died in childbirth.
The early settlers in North Burgess passed down their stories of banshees, fairies, ghosts and the little people. Although they were fiercely loyal to God and to the church, they never abandoned their beliefs in the spirits and creatures of their ancient folklore.
The Story of the Burgess Ghost became a local legend….
The story of the ghost in the Quinn house was passed down through the years, told and retold at family gatherings, around campfires, and particularly in the weeks each year leading up to Hallowe’en.
In a strange final twist to the mystery of the Burgess Ghost, the Quinn family home burned to the ground. The cause of the fire was never determined, and remains a mystery to this day…..
In 1972, the Quinn home was burned to the ground.
Some of the families who were among the earliest settlers to North Burgess Township:
In 2002 the townships formerly known as North Burgess, South Sherbrooke and Bathurst were part of an amalgamation, and adopted the name of Tay Valley Township, as they are known today.
For genealogical records of the founding families of North Burgess Township:
National Archives of Canada – Immigration Databases Online Searh – Immigration to Canada
St. Bridget’s Cemetery Staneyville Ontario
Scotch Line Cemetery – Burials from 1822-2000 North Burgess Township
Irish Immigration to Canada
Lanark County Genealogical Society
Search the census records for North Burgess Township, Lanark County
Irish Genealogy Records online
For more information on Irish Folklore in the early days of Lanark County:
‘Banshees of Burgess’, is part of a collection of short stories in ‘Lanark County Classics – A Treasury of Tales from Another Time’. The reader will discover more about the early families from Ireland who settled in Lanark County, and their customs and beliefs in the supernatural, brought from the old country. The story explores some of the tales passed down by these Irish settlers, and documents their personal experiences with Banshees, ghosts, and fairies while living in Lanark County.
Available at The Book Nook, The Bookworm & Blackwood Originals in Perth, Perfect Books in Ottawa, Mill St. Books and online.
(map of Northern Ireland – By Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) – map by NNW, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7918534)