Located a short walk from the picturesque Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Fort George is an impressive hidden little gem of history. Comprising about a dozen wooden buildings scattered around a roughly coffin-shaped outer wall supported by six blocky bastions, the fort is a popular attraction for tourists and history buffs alike. Replica cannons appear at intervals on the ruddy wooden-decked bastions, aimed outward at long-dead enemies. The grounds are covered with grassy berms and ditches from which soldiers could defend against attack, alongside the stone gunpowder and occasional wooden watchtower.
Fort George is also said to be one of the most haunted locations in North America, home to countless spirits of the war dead. One particular ghost stands out as by far the most colorful and prominent (and, some claim, the best-proven). Her name is Sarah Ann (or Sarahann), “a little girl who spends her afterlife in the soldiers’ barracks or blockhouses. She often appears sitting on the stairs, and likes to tease the staff members at the fort by tapping on their shoulders and then disappearing” (Dirty Rig 2007). Sarah Ann, according to the ghost stories, died from disease at the age of seven, yet remains at the fort. Historians tell us that some soldiers stationed at Fort George (particularly the officers) brought their families to live with them there, and it is said that she was among them.
One of the first and most in-depth reports of Sarah Ann appears in the 2006 book Ghosts of War, where author Jeff Belanger (creator of the popular website ghostvillage.com) writes of Sarah Ann as one of the most important ghosts at the fort. Importantly, it also relates what is apparently the original and first sighting of Sarah Ann. It seems that all of the “known facts” about Sarah Ann repeated on ghost tours and in local stories came from this original report. It’s rare to be able to so precisely pinpoint the origin of alleged biographical details about ghosts, and, as one of the most famous spirits said to haunt Fort George, her story is worth a close investigation.
Fort George tour guide Jim Hill told Belanger that a woman who had just finished a ghost tour “said that while [fellow ghost guide] Kyle [Upton] was talking, this little figure came down the stairs in what she thought at first was a dress, but she realized that on looking at it a little more closely it looked like a man’s shirt. She said the child has extremely short hair and sat and listened to the story, and then followed the group out. When you get to the middle of Fort George there’s this lovely, yellow officer’s quarters, and when we got to that point the little figure stopped in the path, and this lady said that as the group moved away, she kept looking back and this little figure didn’t follow. She said, ‘I can tell you that this little person’s name is Sarah Ann. Once I saw short hair I thought it was a little boy. But no, her name is Sarah Ann.’” According to Belanger (2007), “When I spoke to Jim, it was clear to me from the context and tone that she was relating a woman’s ‘psychic impression’ of what she saw.”
A close reading of the information in Belanger’s book, however, reveals an even more—and less—astonishing explanation: that the anonymous psychic woman who named and first claimed to see Sarah Ann never actually saw a ghost but instead a real, ordinary human child on the ghost tour and, for whatever reason (whether the power of suggestion or merely to tell a fun story), she mistook it for a spirit. In her entire account there’s no reason to think that the child was anything but a flesh-and-blood human; she doesn’t say that the child disappeared, or was transparent, or faded away, or anything else that would hint of a spectral origin. By all accounts the little ghost girl looked and acted exactly like a normal human girl (or boy).
Neither the woman, nor Upton, nor anyone else asked other members of the tour group if they had seen the girl at the time. If they had, it is at least plausible that one of them would have said, “Yes, of course, that’s my daughter Dorion…. Why would anyone think she’s a ghost?” Children are very common on ghost tours, and as any parent knows they don’t always walk in lock-step right next to the adults who brought them. Kids often run ahead or lag behind or just wander off doing their own thing, and it would not be at all unusual for a girl to do that.
After researching this case I had many questions, and I contacted Belanger to ask him about these contradictions in one of the most famous ghost reports in Canada. A closer look at the “ghost report” itself helps explain why it’s so fragmentary and contradictory. Instead of Belanger doing any investigation himself, he simply relied on what other people told him about what other people told them. This sighting is a third-hand story; Belanger is reporting in his book what Jim Hill told him about what an anonymous woman told him about something she claimed to have seen. We see the difference between a ghost storyteller and a ghost investigator. As any investigator knows, details get garbled and stories change with each retelling—this is why it’s important to consult original sources and interview original eyewitnesses whenever possible.
Belanger acknowledged that there were many contradictory and confusing elements to the story he presented, telling me, “You’re right, it’s a third-hand story. I always prefer first-hand accounts, but Jim was such a good storyteller and I wanted to include what he said…. I don’t offer these accounts up as proof of anything. I’m simply passing on what I’ve learned and heard along the way and I’m trying to do it in an entertaining way. Ghosts of War is not meant to be a scientific thesis aiming to prove the existence of ghosts. I don’t expect my readers to believe everything they read” (Belanger 2007).
Interestingly, Belanger told me that in the years since his book had come out, I was the first person to call his attention to the contradictions and ambiguities in his account of Sarah Ann. This suggests that many of his readers may not think critically or analytically about the information he presents, or, as he suggested, perhaps I’m “reading Jim Hill’s account too literally.”
Yet scientific investigation requires that information about hauntings and ghost reports be taken literally—not metaphorically, figuratively, or in any other way. Either a ghost was literally seen or recorded, or it was not; there is a huge difference between an eyewitness saying that a room literally became colder during a spirit presence and saying that the room figuratively became colder. Science operates on literal facts and quantifications: did the room actually get colder—and if so, by how many degrees as measured by a properly calibrated thermometer or other scientific instrument—or did it simply seem to get colder metaphorically, the way a person gives another an icy stare, or a brusque person brings a chill to a conversation.
Ambiguity in idea and language often hides illogic and error, and it is a careful investigator’s duty to stick to the literal facts and avoid such ambiguity. Suggesting that an investigator—especially a skeptical investigator—is taking some statement or fact claim too literally is tantamount to saying that the investigator is taking the claim too seriously. Yet taking a subject seriously is the scientific process by which we distinguish truth from fiction, accuracy from falsehood.
For much more on my investigations at Fort George and about Sarah Ann, see chapters 11 and 12 in my book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits.
Belanger, Jeff. 2007. Personal e-mailed communication with the author, February 5.
Dirty Rig Productions. 2005. Encounters: Episode 1: Fort George. Unaired pilot.
Upton, Kyle. 1999. Niagara’s Ghosts at Fort George. Newmarket, Ontario: Self-published.