It was August 9, 1799, when Abner Blaisdel first heard the “knocking noises” in his house in Machiasport, Maine. Learn the story of Nelly Butler, America’s first ghost.
By Curt Norris
Oct 13 2020
The story of Nelly Butler was first published as “America’s First Ghost,” Yankee Magazine, February 1994.
It was August 9, 1799, when Abner Blaisdel first heard the “knocking noises” in his house in Machiasport, Maine. And on January 2, 1800, both Abner and his daughter heard a woman’s voice coming from the cellar. “I’m the dead wife,” the voice said, “of Captain George Butler, born Nelly Hooper.” Nelly Butler thus became what many believe is America’s first documented ghost.
David Hooper, Nelly’s father, lived about five miles from the Blaisdel home, so Abner sent for him. Mr. Hooper was skeptical, but he was also curious. After walking five miles through a raging snowstorm, Hooper joined Abner in the cellar.
Once again Nelly spoke, and Mr. Hooper became a believer. “She gave such clear and irresistible tokens of her being the spirit of my own daughter as gave me no less satisfaction than admiration and delight,” he wrote later.
Soon after her father returned home, Nelly appeared visually for the first time to Abner’s son Paul. Terrified, he ran home, reporting that he was walking through the fields and was chased by the apparition that “floated” behind him. That night, Nelly scolded Paul for not speaking to her when he saw her.
By February of 1800 Nelly was becoming famous around Machiasport and the surrounding towns. People crowded into the Blaisdel house to see and hear her. A female witness described her appearance: “At first the apparition was a mere mass of light. Then it grew into a personal form, about as tall as myself…and the glow from the apparition had a constant tremulous motion. At last, the personal form became shapeless, expanded every way, and then vanished in a moment.”
Apparently frightened by the throng, she disappeared for four months, then returned in May in front of 20 witnesses in the Blaisdels’ cellar. When asked by Abner why she chose the cellar for her appearances, instead of upstairs where more people could see her, Nelly said she didn’t want to scare any more children.
Before the end of that year, more than 100 people had seen or heard the ghost of Nelly Butler, and most had given sworn testimony to the local pastor, a Reverend Cummings. The Reverend didn’t believe in ghosts and didn’t think his flock should, either. In a foul temper, Cummings strode through the fields to Abner’s house. Suddenly, before him was a woman. “Surrounded by a bright light, at first her form was no bigger than that of a toad…” As he watched, Nelly Butler grew to normal height before his eyes. He was convinced.
Maybe Nelly had made her point or maybe she was just tired and ready for rest, but she was only seen once again after her visit with Cummings. Captain George Butler, Nelly’s husband, reported that she appeared to him one night in his bedroom and gave him a tongue-lashing for remarrying after promising her, on her deathbed, that he would never marry another.
Have you ever heard of the ghost of Nelly Butler?
The story of Nelly Butler was first published as “America’s First Ghost,” Yankee Magazine, February 1994, and has been updated.