In the winter of 1799, in the small coastal town of Sullivan, Maine, began what is known as the first documented haunting in the United States. During this series of hauntings, numerous residents of the town claimed they saw and heard the ghost of Nelly Butler, a young woman who died three years before.
This phenomenon was recorded by the Rev. Abraham Cummings, a traveling preacher who believed the apparition was a spirit sent from heaven. Cummings collected 31 eyewitness testimonies from town residents, which he included in a book titled “Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Sense: In Which Is Considered the Doctrine of Spectres, and the Existence of a Particular Spectre.”
“At first the apparition was a mere mass of light, then grew into personal form, about as tall as myself,” testified Mary Gordon, a resident of Sullivan at the time, according to Cummings. “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. … At least the personal form became shapeless — expanded every way, and then vanished in a moment.”
“So many people saw the same thing and reported the same story,” said Marcus LiBrizzi, an English professor at the University of Maine at Machias who studies Maine ghost stories. “We’re left with a case in which you’ve got multiple witnesses, a really convincing ghost, but then this controversy that hasn’t gone away for more than two centuries.”
Many ghost story books have falsely placed this legendary haunting in Machiasport, about 50 miles up the coast from Sullivan. This misconception stems from the mistake of a researcher in the 1940s, LiBrizzi said, and has been perpetuated by authors and websites ever since.
In an effort to bring this remarkable ghost story back to life, LiBrizzi, along with Dennis Boyd of Cutler, tracked down the rare 1826 book Cummings wrote about the hauntings. With the help of local historian Lois Crabtree Johnson, they researched the family histories and found the gravestones of the people named in the testimonies.
One of their most exciting finds was the gravestone of Capt. George Butler, widower of Eleanor “Nelly” Butler, which is located in a cemetery in the nearby town of Franklin.
LiBrizzi and Boyd then compiled their research, as well as the edited testimonies gathered by Cummings, in the book “The Nelly Butler Hauntings: A Documentary History,” published in 2010.
The story begins in the Blaisdell house near the rocky shore of Taunton Bay. It was in the cellar of that house where the ghost first appeared and most often took shape and spoke, according to testimonies recorded by Cummings.
Claiming to be the spirit of Nelly Butler, the ghost sought to orchestrate the marriage of Nelly Butler’s former husband, 29-year-old George Butler, to Lydia Blaisdell, who was 15 years old at the time. Testimonies by members of the Blaisdell and Butler families, as well was Nelly’s family, the Hoopers, state the spirit was relentless, visiting multiple times and answering personal questions to prove its identity.
On May 28, 1800, Lydia and George were married on Butler Point. The next day, the ghost appeared and prophesied that Lydia would bear one child and die soon after. This prophecy, which came to fruition 10 months later, echoed the sad fate of Nelly Butler, who died of childbirth when she was 22 years old.
Some in the town saw the prophecy as a sinister curse. Because of this and the meddling nature of the ghost, many suspected the apparition not to be Nelly Butler but a demonic spirit. Others thought the haunting to be a hoax and accused the Blaisdell family of tricking George Butler into marriage.
“There was so much controversy. Lydia was basically labeled as a witch if not a fraud,” LiBrizzi said. “The family was ostracized. It was being pulled apart. And then the ghost suddenly comes back as this phantasmal creature of the Lord, singing alleluias and chasing down skeptics.”
That August, large groups of people gathered in the Blaisdell cellar to listen to the ghost speak on religious topics. During that time, the apparition openly confronted those who doubted its identity and holiness.
The last time the ghost was reported in Sullivan was in mid-August, when it followed a procession of 48 people from the Blaisdell house to a neighbor’s house about half a mile away, according to Cummings. Its agenda was to confront a skeptic and show it was capable of appearing outside the Blaisdell home.
At the end of the vigil, the ghost appeared before the crowd in a field, then vanished from the town for good.