Walking into the circa 1840 house, there seemed to be something alluring about it, something I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. As we entered the front door, it felt as though we were intruding in someone’s private gathering. The place was decorated with old Victorian charm. Evergreens, berries, and dried fruits added the sense of Christmas from years gone by. The Burwick home must have been inviting to anyone who was fortunate to attend the parties that took place here long ago. Wandering around this magnificent home was like being taken back in time. The table was set, the furniture all in its place, the grandfather clock stood tall and proud as we passed it to walk up the staircase.
Making the journey step by step, something came over me. I felt a presence, that of a distraught woman. As I slowly walked up, four rooms became visible: a child’s room, a sewing room, another child’s room, and at last the one I seemed most drawn to, the adult’s bedroom. A baby’s crib stood to one side, and mourning clothes were laid upon the bed. Was the woman I sensed mourning for her baby? Was her spirit still looking for her child two centuries later?
The presence was strong, and details came clear. She was a woman of 20-28 years of age, too young to feel the loss of a child. The woman’s pain became overwhelming to me, and I felt the need to reach out to the grieving mother. To everyone else present, including my co-writer, there was nobody in the bedroom, but I knew different.
The Mourning Ghost
The ghostly entity lingered around the room, tied to the cradle that would forever lay empty. In years past, when the sound of children’s laughter came from the streets outside, she would wander over to the window to get a glimpse of them. It must have been painful to watch children happily playing when her own child had been tragically deprived of the experience. I can only imagine the torment that this woman must have endured at those moments.
My experience at Burwick House profoundly shook me. I found I had to learn more about this place and the ghost trapped within. Somehow, I thought uncovering the story would ease the pain of this mourning ghost, and perhaps some of my own as well.
Burwick House was named for the village of Burwick (now Woodbridge, located just north of Toronto, Ontario), which in turn was named for its founder, Rowland Burr. Burr was a carpenter by trade, but made his fortune building mills and in land development. In 1837, he purchased 100 acres along the Humber River in what is now Woodbridge but was then unsettled forest, and erected a sawmill, woolen mill, and grist mill. These industries became the heart of a little village, which was named Burwick in his honor. As the village grew, Burr began subdividing his property into residential lots, occasionally also building homes for the new owners.
Robert Shannon was one of these newcomers. A wealthy wheelwright, in 1844 he had Burr build him a home that would reflect his privileged status within the small community. Burwick House was the result: a one-and-a-half-story home that, thanks to an imposing facade, looks much larger than it actually is. It certainly would have stood apart from the typical rural residence of the day.
In subsequent decades the home passed through various hands, until it was finally purchased by the Bank of Montreal. In 1958, the bank donated the old home to Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto, making it one of the living history museum’s original buildings. It’s also one of the most attractive.
But there was more than just its architecture and a sense of history that drew me to Burwick House. There was also the ghost. And I wasn’t alone in sensing this spirit’s presence. We soon discovered that staff members have long reported mild poltergeist activity in the building, though they are attempting to move away from the stigma that old houses are automatically haunted houses and are unwilling to discuss their experience publicly.
Some people have complained of a general unease in the home, an unsettling presence that hovers at the edge of their senses like a dark shadow. People climbing the stairs to the warm and elegant second-floor bedrooms distinctly hear the sound of footsteps pacing across the upstairs floor, but upon reaching the landing they are startled to discover that they are alone on the second-story. They may find a deep indentation in the center of the bed, as if someone (or something) had been sitting there just a few seconds earlier, heedless of the ropes that cordon off the room.
Some spectral activity is less subtle. At night, the ghost is responsible for lighting up an upstairs window with a strange, glowing aura. Security staff that investigate never find anyone in the building, nor any explanation for the light. Almost all reports agree that the ghost is largely confined to the second floor bedrooms, particularly the master bedroom.
Not all poltergeist activity occurs upstairs, however. All of the eight rooms in the home are furnished with exquisite pieces, most of them in all likelihood brought over from the Old Country. But amongst the fine china, expensive furniture, and Persian rugs one item truly stands out—a beautiful grandfather clock. The clock may chime for no apparent reason or count off the hours inaccurately. All minor foibles perhaps easily explained by aging machinery. Except for one thing: the clock is no longer kept running.
So how would one explain a clock, which should not be working, that rings incessantly and seemingly without reason until a party of visitors vacates the upstairs? It’s a question that, for one mother and her young daughter at least, couldn’t be answered with reason.
When they first began to climb the stairs, the pair felt nothing out of the ordinary. They were simply excited by their day’s explorations and eager to see what awaited them upstairs in this beautiful old home. Soon after they had reached the second floor, however, they began to feel cold and unwelcome. The young girl in particular was ill at ease. She felt a soft hand gingerly touch her face and momentarily cup her chin. And then the clock began to chime. It wasn’t the peaceful ringing that is so endearing about grandfather clocks. Instead, it sounded ominous somehow, almost agitated. Instinctively, the mother knew it was time to leave, and tightly gripping her child by the hand, she fled down the stairs. As soon as mother and child were safely downstairs the clock stopped its chiming. It was as if the ghost was using the clock to voice her displeasure at the unwelcome intrusion into her domain.
Spurred by stories such as this, the Toronto and Ontario Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society, a non-profit organization founded in 1998, began to investigate the paranormal activity at Black Creek Pioneer Village. After conducting three informal visits, as well as various in-person and telephone interviews with staff members, the members came away convinced that the Burwick House was home to at least “mild poltergeist activity.”
“We have first-hand reports of hauntings from descendants of the family that once lived in the house,” said Sue Darroch, “but we’ve signed non-disclosure agreements and are unable to divulge information or names.” At the same time, staff members at Black Creek Pioneer Village are often are generally hesitant to discuss their experiences. “We have followed up on these reports to the best of our abilities,” notes Mrs. Darroch on the GHRS website (www.torontoghosts.org), “however we were informed during our last visit by one staff member that BCPV is attempting to move away from the stigma of “old house” equals “ghosts,” and therefore many may be reluctant to speak publicly about possible experiences.”
That’s why “Marlee” insisted that her real name not be revealed. She generously offered her unsettling story, on the condition of anonymity.
It was late into the evening by the time Marlee and a co-worker began the short walk back to the administrative building after one of the park’s rare nighttime events. The moon, which had been playing hide-and-go-seek with drifting clouds all night, poked through to cast the village in an eerie glow, causing deep shadows to stretch across the reproduction pioneer streets. Marlee found her eyes drawn to the second floor of the Burwick House, where a pale white light illuminated one of the windows.
“It kind of flickered, like a candle sputtering in its own wax,” she explains.
“We were scared that an oil-lamp had been left on and went to investigate.”
Marlee and her associate had no way of knowing that by doing so they about to receive an even greater scare. Pushing open the front door to Burwick House, Marlee immediately felt an ominous presence that caused her to pause in her steps. Regaining her composure, she began to climb the creaking stairs, but her knees grew weaker with each step taken. She reached the landing, inexplicably exhausted by the short ascent.
“There was no lamp burning, or any other light source that would explain the glow we saw.” Marlee explains. “But I saw a black figure, a shadow, walk across one of the bedrooms. It was only there for a moment, but it was defiantly a woman.”
A chill suddenly came over Marlee, and cold terror jolted through her body as her mind finally registered what she had seen. Her breath came in jagged gasps, and she reflexively gripped her friend’s arm. “My co-worker saw the panic in my face and quickly suggested we leave. She hadn’t seen the ghost, but she did feel uneasy about something and was just as scared as I was.”
Should it really come as any surprises that the park is haunted? Black Creek Pioneer Village is a monument to all those settlers who came to a young Canada and literally carved our nation from the wilderness. Dramas full of hardships, endless toil, births and deaths, and always hope for a new future, took place within the walls of these historic buildings. Such strong emotional energies simply don’t dissipate, and its these energies that keep the ghostly woman at Burwick House tied to her former home.
Grief-stricken, the despondent apparition continues to pace across the creaking floors in the bedrooms of Burwick House, her forlorn spirit tied to the room in which her baby slowly slipped from her loving arms into the cold embrace of death. Her presence is an eerie reminder to all of the tragedies that were commonplace in our nation’s pioneer era.
We don’t know what brought this presence into the Burwick House. Was it the belongings in it or was she tied to the house itself? We might never find out, but for at least one person, and possibly many more, this young mother is definitely there. So if by chance, while touring the Burwick House, you sense her presence or if your child feels the warm, soft caress of a gentle hand, don’t be scared. It’s just a heart-broken mother hoping to find her own child.
Andrew Hind is a local history columnist for several newspapers in Ontario, Canada, and is a freelance writer with an interest in the paranormal. Maria Da Silva, with a passion for ghost stories and history, is his occasional co-writer.