Photo by pic snapper from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Toronto’s history is difficult to market. As major cities go, Toronto is a relative newcomer: there are no ancient ruins to explore and, with the partial exception of 1812, no great battles. For Toronto’s historic museums, capturing the public’s attention is a difficult and thankless task. There are ten historic museums in Toronto that are funded and operated by the city, each of which offers a unique depiction of Toronto’s past and a chance to relive our collective history. As such, the museums market themselves as an experience: “Don’t just read about history,” proclaims the City of Toronto website, “taste it, touch it, hear it and explore it.”
In a city that often chooses to tear down its history rather than preserve it, these opportunities are few and far between, and each historic museum claims to provide not only a history of the building and the community but an authentic, historically accurate experience. Fort York’s educational programs allow students to experience the life of a solider in the barracks, visitors to Montgomery’s Inn can enjoy a cup of tea in the historic tea room, and the Historic Zion Schoolhouse replicates the 1900s classroom experience.
Visceral experiences are easier to market than dates and names, but even still, an early twentieth century classroom doesn’t exactly scream excitement. People want to learn and be entertained at the same time. This can be a difficult feat to pull off, and Toronto’s museums have occasionally allowed entertainment to trump history.
More often than not, these instances take the form of special events. Colborne Lodge’s wreath-making session and Scarborough Historical Museum’s Desserts by Lamplight are fun, family-friendly events. They don’t have any real historical value, but they provide funding and help to bring the community together. Problems really only arise when the entertainment is sensationalized.
Faced with declining revenues in the 1960s, Mackenzie House successfully boosted admissions by claiming that the house was haunted. Between 1960 and 1966, several employees reported seeing ghostly activity. The first caretaking couple to occupy the house, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Edmunds, told the Toronto Telegram in 1960 that they saw the ghostly images of a brown-haired old woman and a balding old man in a frock coat. Once, according to Mrs. Edmunds, the woman even slapped her in the face. “Two years ago, in early March, I saw the Lady again. It was the same—except this time she reached out and hit me. When I woke up my left eye was purple and bloodshot.” The descriptions provided by Edmunds matched those of William Lyon Mackenzie and his wife Isabel. Coming as it did in a time of financial need, the reports were, curiously, the first reported incidents of paranormal activity in the more than hundred years the house had been inhabited after Mackenzie’s death.
Other caretakers and workers then reported unexplained sounds, including piano music, footsteps, and the clacking of the old printing press in the basement. The most surreal report of ghostly activity comes from 1962, when a workman claimed to find a noose hanging over a stairwell (why would the Mackenzies have hung a noose?). To further drive speculation after the Edmunds’ story, the museum even hired a priest to perform an exorcism—in front of reporters, of course, which did wonders for the museum’s bottom line.
Today, the museum doesn’t mention its ghostly past during the tour, but ghost-related books and merchandise are still for sale in the gift shop, and Mackenzie House was recently featured on the YTV show Ghost Trackers, along with Montgomery’s Inn, Fort York, Spadina House, and Colborne Lodge—all of which have tried to cash in on their ghost stories. Last month, Mongomery’s Inn held a pseudo-séance to channel the inn’s resident spirit, despite the fact that the staff have repeatedly denied its existence. Around Halloween, Fort York regularly puts on the “Ghosts of the Garrison”—a family-friendly event designed to be spooky, “…but not too spooky for the younger crowd.” Not to be outdone, Spadina House and Colborne Lodge have also tried to make a quick buck with their own ghost-themed events.
Ghost stories are, of course, interesting, and they are sometimes historically relevant. But more often than not, they turn history into a carnival attraction. While the stories draw in the visitors that help keep the city’s historic museums alive, the tales seem a bit out of place for a group of museums that avidly assert their authenticity.
Bottom photo by Stephen Michalowicz