If you’re in search of ghouls and spooks this Halloween you may want to bypass Toronto’s reputedly haunted Mackenzie House. You would have a ghost of a chance finding a believer among those who work there.
The Bond Street house, former home of Toronto’s first mayor and historic rebel-rouser William Lyon Mackenzie, has long been rumoured to harbour the restless souls of Mackenzie himself and his wife Isabel. Stories of the hauntings are so well-known that anthologist John Robert Colombo, in his book Mysterious Canada, called the house “the most celebrated haunted house in Metropolitan Toronto, and perhaps in all of Canada.”
Celebrated, certainly. Substantiated? Not according to those who have spent the most time in the house, its employees.
Chris Raible worked at the house for seven years, between 1987 and 1994. Though his interest lay wholly in the lives of the Mackenzie clan, he found that visitors to the house were consistently more interested in the Mackenzies’ afterlives.
“While I was working there, I found that that the most common question people asked was ‘Is this place really haunted?’ I was puzzled by this, so I decided to dig into why people were asking this question.”
In his digging, Raible discovered that the purported ghosts did not make their first appearances in the house until 1960—nearly a century after the Mackenzies died. And it seemed that the ghosts wished to bring people to the house—which was then a museum—rather than scare them away. “In about 1960 the house had very low attendance,” Raible said. “It wasn’t until the house was in dire financial straits that the stories of the ghosts first started.”
The public first learned of the supposed haunting of Mackenzie house from a series of front-page articles in the Toronto Telegram. Andrew MacFarlane, then a staff writer for the paper, reported that the caretakers of the house had seen strange apparitions and heard unexplainable sounds in the night. MacFarlane’s successive stories suggested that Mackenzie’s ghost had been heard working away on his old newspaper printing press at night, and occasionally flushing the toilets.
While the Telegram reports tended to suspend disbelief, the Toronto Star reported the stories more skeptically, once saying that the bumps in the night were just the sound of “an eager publicist’s typewriter” working to cull “swarms of tourists eager to spot the drifting spirits.” Other newspapers ignored the stories entirely: “The Globe and Mail just pooh-poohed the story,” chuckled Raible.
Public belief in the ghosts of Mackenzie house nevertheless flourished and, in late 1960, it reached such a point that an Anglican priest was brought to the house to perform an exorcism.
After the initial flap of sightings in 1960, news coverage of the supposed haunting waned, but a strong public curiosity remains even today. Karen MacNeil volunteers at Mackenzie House, conducting guided tours for visitors. Wearing a Victorian-era parlour dress and bonnet, she herself looks as if she could be a spectre from a bygone era. But MacNeil puts little weight in tales of ghosts at the house: “Some of the stories are really kind of ridiculous,” she says, “but it’s good publicity to get people in.”
MacNeil finds particular humour in the stories of the reported strange noises heard at night: “People said they could hear ghosts using the printing press—but it’s a completely silent machine. And flushing toilets? The Mackenzies didn’t have a toilet. How would they know how to use one?”
The printing press in question is now a part of the museum, and visitors are invited to try it out. Indeed, it runs today as it would have in Mackenzie’s newspaper-making heyday: silently—the quintessential well-oiled machine.
Bob McGregor, a soft-spoken, spectacled man who has volunteered at the house for seven years, often explains the museum’s mock print shop to visitors.
Though McGregor is not as ardently skeptical as MacNeil, he is cautious about giving the ghost stories too much credence: “I wouldn’t say I don’t believe them, but I wouldn’t say I do believe them either. I just don’t know.”
McGregor recounted one recent sighting involving a painter who was working in the museum while it was closed to the public for renovations. The painter, McGregor said, saw a strange figure in a front hallway and tried to approach it, but when he followed it around a corner, it had vanished. McGregor recounted the tale with all the gravity a ghost story deserves, but capped it with a strong hint of disbelief: “Maybe the paint fumes were a little too strong,” he shrugged.
In spite of dubious evidence, people continue to visit Mackenzie House in search of spirits from the past. Chris Raible suggests that those people should look not inside the house, but in the courtyard just beside it, where a large stone monument commemorates the “pioneers of political freedom” who helped forge Canadian government.
Though it was not known at the time of the monument’s unveiling, the words inscribed on the monument were written by William Lyon Mackenzie King, then-prime minister of Canada and grandson of Mackenzie House’s namesake. After King’s death, it was discovered that he was an avid spiritualist, and had recorded in his personal diary that the words inscribed on the tablet were not truly his own, but the result of spiritual communication with his deceased grandfather.
“Though there may be no ghost haunting Mackenzie house,” Raible says, “you could say the monument was ghostwritten.”