Yesterday I wrote about Witch Hollow and my friend Gina Ellis and mentioned The Witch of Plum Hollow.
Wendy LeBlanc added the following:
Linda, the Witch of Plum Hollow had a Carleton Place connection! She was the grandmother of Amy Buchanan who was brought up in the brick house on the south corner of the Charles and Emily Street intersection. I have heard from good sources that the house is haunted!
Amy’s family ran the Buchanan Insurance Company and when she married Vern McCarten, it later became the Buchanan-McCarten Insurance Company. The family lived and ran the business from the lovely home on Bridge Street across from the end of High Street – now a real estate office. A well-known, community-minded family! Their children, Janet and Doug, live in the Toronto area, I believe, and if they read this, I hope they’ll correct anything I got wrong.
The McCarten House on Bridge Street now owned by Barbara Couch
Though she was not really a witch in any real sense of the word, Elizabeth ‘Mother’ Barnes is and will remain another of the interesting stories in our area. Elizabeth Barnes died in 1886, and is buried in the Sheldon’s Corners cemetery. She charged 25 cents to earn extra money, and her fame quickly spread. People came from all over to consult her, by horse and carriage, for everything from lost livestock, to murders, and even buried treasure. Even Sir John A. MacDonald consulted Mother Barnes, and was told, among other things, that he would become the leader of the new country. She lived to be over 90, and is credited with solving a murder, locating buried treasure, personal items, and unraveling ‘ghostly events’.
The True Story of the Witch of Plum Hollow
Growing up in Eastern Ontario, about fifteen miles from the village of Athens, one of the legends we grew up with was The Witch of Plum Hollow. Her real name was Elizabeth Barnes. Of course, we had to embellish the stories as we passed them on to people who hadn’t heard of the woman. When the weather is better, I like to take friends who have never heard of the woman out by her small log cabin. But since that isn’t an option in the online world, you’ll have to read about her here. So grab yourself a cuppa and sit back and I’ll tell you about this woman who was known locally as The Witch of Plum Hollow.
Elizabeth Barnes was many things – mother, grandmother, clairvoyant, soothsayer, and water dowser – but not a witch. She was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, which she claimed was the reason behind her “second sight” and “sixth sense.” A small woman, barely five feet tall, she had slender hands and tapered fingers. Her sharp penetrating eyes were of great value to her as she read not so much the tea leaves of the people who climbed the rickety steps to the room upstairs to see her, but their faces.
As much mystery surrounds Elizabeth Barnes now, over one hundred years after her death, as during her lifetime. Some sources show her date of birth simply as 1794 and her death date as 1886 while others claim that she was born on November 5, 1800 and died on February 10, 1891.
She was born Jane Elizabeth Martin in County Cork, Ireland, to a well-to-do family. Her father had arranged her marriage to a colonel friend of his, who was at least twice as old as his daughter. But she loved someone else.
True love prevailed and the man she was in love with, Robert Joseph Harrison, also a military man, came to her one night as her impending wedding day approached and they eloped to America. Elizabeth remained completely devoted to her husband and loved him with all her heart. Early in their marriage they had a son (Robert Harrison, Junior). Tragically, her beloved husband died leaving her on her own to raise the young lad.
About four years after the death of her husband, Elizabeth married David Barnes, a native of Connecticut and shoemaker by trade. Together they had nine children; six sons and three daughters.
In the autumn of 1843, David, Elizabeth, and her son from her first marriage moved to Sheldon’s Corners near Athens, Ontario. It was after their arrival here that her use of her “gift” was first documented which led to the fear that some area people felt towards her and the respect that others showed her. It was here that she was first referred to as “Mother Barnes.”
Elizabeth and David raised seven of their children here, but in time, David lost interest in farming and decided it was time to move on. He took their youngest son David with him and moved to Smiths Falls where the two stayed with an older son Sam, who had ten children of his own.
Having a houseful ofchildren to feed, Elizabeth turned to fortune telling to support them. It didn’t take long for her reputation to spread and people from near and far were coming to have their fortunes told by the kindly woman. Her success was quickly followed by fame. Her fee? Twenty five cents.
Her title “The Witch of Plum Hollow” was coined by a young reporter who interviewed her. It wasn’t meant to be derogatory, rather a title of respect, meaning “wise woman.” The title stuck and Mother Barnes to this day is still referred to as The Witch of Plum Hollow.
As a teen, I remember going to her ramshackle log cabin and wandering through it, wondering if the whole thing was going to come down on my head. I even climbed the stairs to the upper level. Since I’m here now, telling you about the Witch of Plum Hollow, you know that no harm befell me.Former neighbours recall seeing many wagons and buckboards coming from all directions to the tiny house where Mother Barnes and her children lived. These same people also recall coming across a woman wearing a shawl over her shoulders, sitting at a table with a pot of tea beside her upstairs in her cabin.
Stories of her clairvoyant prowess included her ability to tell where the body of Morgan Doxtader would be found. She was also able to tell that it was his cousin Edgar Harter who murdered him. Edgar was later hanged for the crime in Brockville.
Another man who had lost several sheep came to her to find out where his missing animals were. She told him that the meat was in a barrel in his neighbour’s cellar and that the hides were tacked on the walls of this neighbour’s stable. When the man checked the stables, he found the hides of his missing sheep where she said they would be.
This is probably the best story of her clairvoyant abilities. Before Confederation, Canada was two provinces – Upper and Lower Canada. The capital had been shifted about many times. John A. Macdonald, then attorney-general for Upper Canada, went to Mother Barnes to see if she could tell where the location of the new capital would be. She told him that Queen Victoria would pick the city on the south side of the river, which was Ottawa, then known as Bytown. She also went on to predict that this young man would become Prime Minister.
There are many more stories about her fortune-telling abilities but those are best saved for another day.
Elizabeth Barnes was buried in an unmarked grave in the nearby Sheldon Cemetery. In later years, a headstone was erected by Claude and Ella Flood, cheesemakers at nearby Plum Hollow, to mark her final resting place.
The little cabin still stands, and in much better condition than it was in back when I took the photos. The property was put up for sale and subsequently sold. The new owner had a cement pad poured and the building reassembled on it with new windows, a new roof, and most importantly, a new lease of life. You can see the improvements by clicking here. I think Mother Barnes would approve.
If you had the chance to have your fortune told, would you?
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Another person who reportedly consulted her was Ogle R. Gowan, a newspaper publisher, politician and first Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of British America (now known as Grand Orange Lodge of Canada). This consultation is noted in Professor Donald Akenson’s semi-fictional biography of him titled THE ORANGEMAN, which was available a few years ago at the Carleton Place Public Library (I borrowed it through interlibrary loan several years ago, but I don’t know if they still have it).– John Morrow