Ghost in the Window: At Toronto’s Colborne Lodge

February 10, 2017

According to many sources, Colborne Lodge at Toronto’s High Park (where I visited in 1973) is still the residence of the lady of the house, Jemima. Illness confined her for many years to her upstairs bedroom, until she died in 1877 and was buried on the property. “To this day,” states Dennis William Hauck in his The International Directory of Haunted Places (2000, 155), “her apparition is seen staring out that same upstairs master bedroom window, looking down at her iron-fenced gravesite and massive monument.” Hauck goes on to explain that she was the wife of Sir John Colborne, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, but he is mistaken.

In fact, she was Jemima Howard, wife of City Surveyor John George Howard who was also an engineer and architect. Howard built the house (now a museum) in 1836 and named it after Colborne, who was the first Canadian to become a patron of his architecture (“Colborne” 2017). And despite Hauck’s insistence that the apparition is seen still, reports suggest that Jemima would have to have waited some 92 years after her death to put in an appearance, and that she did so only once.

There are a great many versions (or “variants” as folklorists call them) of the apparition story. One writer even gives different accounts himself (Colombo 1988; 1996). Initially he says the first encounter was by a motorcycle policeman in “early 1970,” but he later reports it was “one night in 1969,” and continues:

He slowed down as he approached the lodge, then stopped. Framed in the second-floor bedroom window was the silhouette of a woman. He checked the doors and groundfloor windows of the lodge and found them secure. Then he reported the odd sight.

But wait! An online source states that in 1969 the patrolling policeman actually went in to investigate: “Entering the house, the officer crept up the stairs and into the room only to find it empty” (Rainford 2013). I completely distrust that account however. Not only is that motif (as folklorists call a story element) of late vintage—consistent with being an embellishment—but it seems unlikely the house would have been left unlocked, or that the officer had a key, or that, lacking one, he decided to break in.

A still later source (Colborne 2015) repeats the doubtful claim but loses further credibility by placing the event “in 1953.” On my visit in 1973 I was told that the policeman had two sightings of the figure (Nickell 1973), but it is not uncommon for two variant tales to be counted as two occurrences. Also, an unnamed source cites—at third-hand—a desk sergeant who “feels” that the original officer “definitely saw something and it wasn’t a mannequin or trick of the light.”

Indeed, a trick of light—a play of light and shadow upon the glass or inside a room—can prompt an outside observer to see shadowy figures (Nickell 2012, 64–65), an explanation I considered at the time I visited (Nickell 1973). Another possibility with historic houses is the ubiquitous mannequin that has often prompted such ghost sightings (e.g., at an old inn in Savannah [“17 Hundred 90 Inn” 2017] and a historic mansion I investigated in Western New York [Nickell 2012, 91]).

As it happens, the latter explanation seems the correct one at Colborne Lodge. Ontario skeptic Jeff Walker (1989) reports that when he visited and asked a guide about the matter, “she replied that a cop had once mistaken a dressed mannequin at the window for an intruder, so they removed the mannequin.” It has been there more recently, draped in black and facing the window where it recreates the image of the dying Jemima watching her tomb as it was being built (Stier 2009).

References

Colborne, Lodge: History & Ghosts. 2015. YouTube. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJq8JjGOj24; accessed February 6, 2017.

Colborne Lodge. 2017A. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colborne_Lodge; accessed January 19.

Colborne Lodge. 2017B. Online at http://www.torontoghosts.org/index.php?/2008081598/The-Former-CityOf-Toronto-Public-Buildings/Colborne-Lodge-High-Park.html; accessed January 19, 2017.

Colombo, John Robert. 1988. Mysterious Canada. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 245–246.

———. 1996. Haunted Toronto. Toronto: Hounslow Press, 188–191.

Hauck, Dennis William. 2000. The International Directory of Haunted Places. New York: Penguin.

Nickell, Joe. 1973. Personal journal, Sunday, February 25.

———. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Rainford, Lisa. 2013. History of hauntings at Colborne Lodge resurface as Halloween nears. Bloor West Villager. Online at www.insidetoronto.com/news-story/4176168-history-of-hauntings-at-colborne-lodge-resurface-as-halloween-nears; accessed February 6, 2017.

The 17 Hundred 90 Inn. 2017. Online at http://www.hauntedhouses.com/states/ga/17hundred90.htm; accessed February 6, 2017.

Stiers, Jordana. 2009. Spirits of High Park past. Online at http://mytowncrier.ca/news/spirits-of-high-park-past/; accessed February 8, 2017.

Walker, Jeff. 1989. Mystery of High Park ‘ghost’ easily solved. . . .” The Ontario Skeptic 3:2 (fall), 2.

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