Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Ghost of Wesley Hall

(From a site called Eerie Places: Haunted Windsor and Essex County)

Ontario - Chatham - Park Street United Church - A tall man dressed in black has been seen at night running through a room called Wesley Hall. Two janitors had seen him. The odd thing was, was that the motion detectors were on. On another occasion, the same man was seen by a teenager playing hide and goes seek in the sanctuary. Also, in a certain storage room near the gymnasium, an intoxicating smell can be detected.

OK then. This might just be one-of-your-average, run-o'-the-mill ghost sightings. Most of the strange goings-on listed on this site really aren't so strange. But who is this mysterious man-in-black running around Wesley Hall?

I think I might know.

Eons ago, I wrote about the minister of my church, Rev. Russell Horsburgh, and the havoc he wreaked on a small-town congregation in the early 1960s. This had such a deep impression on me that I based a character on him in my second novel, Mallory. Who knows why the good folks at Park Street United hired a man like Horsburgh: he was a firebrand who believed in civil rights and actually allowed "negroes" into the church (and not just as cleaning staff). He  held meetings and discussion groups about controversial issues instead of sweeping them under the rug. As if that weren't bad enough, soon he had marshalled the listless young people's group into a passionate affair, which turned out to be a mite too passionate.

I was only eight or nine when all this happened, and my parents were trying to protect me, I guess, or else just get me to shut up, so I had to piece together whispered fragments: "psychopath," "in league with the devil," "what they found in the church," "liquor bottles, cigarettes. .  .and worse." There was national coverage of the scandal as Horsburgh was thrown in jail, tried, and found guilty of leading juveniles into immorality, vagrancy and delinquency.

I don't know how long he spent in jail, but a few years later he died of cancer, all his holy fires spent. He had a group of loyal supporters who in later years claimed to have exonerated him and found him completely blameless, the victim of a witch hunt, but by then it was too late.

Personally, I think Horsburgh was a megalomaniac and a sociopath. I remember him as a big, tall, scary man in black who harangued the congregation and literally pounded on the pulpit as he drove his points home. He once (infamously) printed Martin Luther's "casting my pearls before swine" speech in the church bulletin and signed it with his own name. ("Someone" - ? - had x'ed it out before it was mimeographed, but it was easy to read the original by holding it up to a window. Such goings-on.)

Do you believe in spooks? Ghosts, things that pound pulpits in the night? This account, full of spelling mistakes, may just be a hoax playing on a dark bit of Chatham history which the townsfolk would rather forget. In fact, if you asked anyone about it even 10 or 15 years later, they would likely have denied any knowledge of it. I once tried to hunt down a copy of The Horsburgh Affair, a book someone wrote to defend him, and it had to be dredged out of the inactive vaults of the Vancouver Public Library. Not exactly a bestseller, though I do remember a copy floating around our house in the book-lined den in about 1965.  As I recall, the book is exceedingly poorly-written and doesn't prove anything.

Oh, about that "intoxicating smell" in the storage room near the gymnasium. . . well, this is just too funny, isn't it? For one of the more vile rumors about Horsburgh was that he encouraged his teenage reprobates to partake of illegal substances in the church basement. I don't remember a gymnasium in the church, but maybe they added it when Dufferin Hall was torn down and turned into a parking lot for the dental offices and chiropractors who had invaded the main church building. (This was when the proposed Country Music Hall of Fame and the indoor parking lot for a local motorcycle club had been vetoed, along with other "unseemly" options which we can only imagine.)

I attach a couple of links to a very well-researched article from the Chatham Daily News which I found a few years ago. This was the only detailed information I could find on the subject. The article is largely sympathetic towards him, an understandable attitude in light of the small-town primness of the times and the fact that most people never knew about the strange butts, empty liquor bottles and used condoms the (black) cleaning staff found on the floor of Wesley Hall.

(I just thought of something. The way that ghost-sighting report was worded, it's unclear whether it was that teenager in the sanctuary who was playing "hide and goes seek", or if in fact it was the Good Reverend Scary-boo Horsburgh himself. And if so, playing with whom? With the Ghost of Christmas Past, or the deceased maiden lady clerk at the Metropolitan store who sold goldfish for 15 cents, or that well-known reprobate of abandoned church sanctuaries, Ebeneezer Screwed?)