The Demonic Possession of Bruce Cockburn's Wife
Plus the sea monster of Lake Ontario, the spark that ignited the Cold War, and more.
It all began one evening in 1968, as a young couple strolled through the grounds of an old church. St. Patrick’s has been standing on McCaul Street since the early 1900s, serving one of the oldest Catholic parishes in the city. It’s how the St. Patrick subway station got its name. Like any church, the imposing stone building is a spiritual place, somewhere many people feel connected to things unseen. But what Kitty Macaulay sensed that night in the old churchyard was far from comforting. She would later come to suspect it was where the horrors originated — the herald of a living nightmare that would end with her and her boyfriend fleeing their home in terror.
She’d been going out with Bruce Cockburn for a couple of years at that point. He would soon become one of the most famous folk singers in Canada, but this was the beginning of his career, before the fame. They’d met one night in Ottawa, while he was playing in a blues band at an after-hours club. As he performed on stage, he became aware of some strange vibes coming from a corner table. It was, he said, as if someone was trying to cast a spell on him; he knew plenty of women who dabbled in witchcraft. “I was conscious of someone over at the side hexing me,” he explained, “just giving off some feeling. So naturally I began to note who it was.”
It was Macaulay. She was an art student who often hung out at the club with her boyfriend of the time. But it wasn’t long before she was dating the promising young musician instead — if she was casting a spell that night, it must have been a love spell. Together, she and Cockburn moved to Toronto, where he became a fixture in the same Yorkville music scene that would launch the careers of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. He joined a pop-folk outfit called 3’s A Crowd — one of my favourite old Toronto bands — while Macaulay continued her education.
She was studying at the Ontario College of Art, what we now call OCAD University. St. Patrick’s Church was just a few steps up the street, so it’s not a surprise the young couple found themselves strolling through its grounds on that evening in 1968. But the walk would prove to be anything but romantic. Macaulay soon began to feel as if they weren’t alone.
“I had become aware of something trying to reach out to me,” she later explained to author Eileen Sonin, “as if it were trapped in the yard and wanted me to take it home. At the same time, I received a mental warning that I should not listen to or tamper with the spirit, so I asked [Bruce] if we could leave at once.” They did, but she’d soon be back.
The next day was bright and sunny. And with the creepy sensation of the previous evening nothing but a memory, Macaulay convinced herself that it all been a figment of her imagination. She decided, in fact, that she would go back to the churchyard in the light of day and prove to herself that nothing weird was actually going on.
She headed straight back to the spot where she’d felt the presence the night before. This time, it spoke to her. “Take me with you,” it said, “take me with you.”
It was months later, she told Sonin, that the haunting began. By then, Macaulay and Cockburn had moved into a new apartment. It was on Queen Street West, not far from the church, on the second floor above a storefront. Back then, the building was home to a bookshop; today it’s occupied by an Aritzia boutique.
It’s a pretty little building, erected in the 1880s, just three storeys with a wee tower on top. But Macaulay never liked the place. From the moment they moved in, she’d sensed it. No matter how many plants she bought or bright curtains she hung up, she couldn’t get rid of the oppressive atmosphere. Even visiting friends commented on it. And that was just the beginning. Life in that apartment would soon become truly unsettling.
The first sign came while she was pouring herself a glass of water. She was suddenly struck by the feeling the water had been poisoned. She drank it anyway, and it was fine, but the next time it happened, the feeling was stronger still. “I knew that I must not touch the water with my lips.”
A week later, she was visited by a horrifying vision. It came to her in a flash while she was looking in the bathroom mirror. “I saw myself — or an image of myself — with my throat cut, and the whole bathroom a shambles as if there had been a fight with blood everywhere.”
Even more disturbing, it seemed to her as if another mind was trying to control her — to posses her. “I knew something or someone was tampering with my thoughts, and began to feel as though I were living in a nightmare. It seemed incredible that outside my home I was a normal, rational, well-adjusted being, while in my home I was becoming a victim of someone who needed to take control of a human mind and body.”
Macaulay would soon learn that she wasn’t the only one having these experiences. A couple of friends had moved into the building at the same time they did, taking the apartment above them: fellow folk singer Murray McLauchlan & his wife Patty.
As it turned out, disturbing things had been happening upstairs, too.
Patty confided in her one night. She’d been having the same paranoid thoughts about poisoned glasses of water. She had morbid daydreams, and was becoming afraid of her husband for no good reason. For a long while now, she’d felt uneasy every time she passed her bedroom door. And once, as she glanced inside, she’d had her own terrifying vision. The room had been ransacked; furniture broken, wallpaper torn, blood everywhere. She’d seen her husband lying on the floor, dead, his throat slit.
McLauchlan didn't really believe in the supernatural, but even he admitted to having a hideous recurring nightmare. "In the dream, I would be floating disembodied through the apartment,” he wrote in his autobiography. “As I moved about from place to place, I encountered our bodies, slaughtered in the most brutal way. There was blood everywhere — on the floor in pools, streaked along the walls. I would gasp awake, shocked and sweating."
Things only got worse as the seasons changed and the nights grew longer. “There was a pervasive drenching sense of something evil filling the apartment. It was there all the time now. I never heard voices or anything like that, yet I would suddenly be possessed by an overwhelming urge to go to the kitchen and take out a butcher knife and kill Patty. I started to think I was really going crazy.”
One night, he felt a hand close around his head. On another, he and Patty both became aware of a hateful presence watching them as they read. It was so strong they left the apartment to go stay with friends. It gave McLauchlan a panic attack.
And on the night the two couples sat in Macaulay and Cockburn’s apartment, sharing the stories of the upsetting experiences they’d endured, the dog began to behave strangely. He was a big shaggy fellow, part wolfhound, with the delightful name of Aroo. He’d always been suspicious of the closet under the stairs. He would sniff at the door with his tail between his legs, whimpering. Now, he was doing it again. Macaulay had never looked inside, but the couples decided it was finally time to investigate. They waited until the light of the next day, then cracked open the door and looked inside.
The closet was mostly filled with the usual junk. Boxes of screws and doorknobs. Golf clubs. An axe. A ring. But also a strange, old cane. The handle had been carved into a fist, the thumb curled up between the index and middle fingers. It’s a sign that has been used to ward off evil spirits for thousands of years, ever since the Ancient Romans used it as part of an annual festival meant to exorcise malevolent ghosts from their homes.
On the shaft of the cane, a strange word was inscribed; a jumble of letters, written in a language they didn’t understand. It was, they assumed, the name of a demon — the evil spirit against which the cane was meant to protect. None of them was brave enough to say that name out loud.
Macaulay decided to ask the neighbours in the next building whether they’d ever seen anything odd. They told her about the previous tenants of her apartment. An ordinary, quiet couple at first, they seemed to have gone mad while they were living there. The longer they stayed, the more they began to fight, scream, and show signs of paranoid behaviour, until they were finally evicted by the landlord.
That story was the last straw. Kitty and Bruce moved out later that day; Murray and Patty weren’t far behind, “refusing,” according to The Toronto Star, “to return even for their belongings.” They’d lasted only eight weeks since moving in.
There would be big changes in the months to come. The next spring, Cockburn left his band and went solo. He and Macaulay and Aroo all moved into a camper van, touring across the country for the next few years — travels that inspired some of his greatest songs.
They would get married at the end of their first year on the road. It was Macaulay who insisted they hold the wedding at a church; Cockburn wasn’t religious. But during the ceremony, he felt another, very different kind of spiritual presence. “We're exchanging rings at the altar and all of a sudden there's somebody else standing there,” he would later explain. “There's Kitty and me and the priests and then this invisible presence that is so palpable that I was shocked.” He decided it must have been Jesus. He became a devoted Christian, a passionately religious man to this day.
Macaulay and Cockburn would eventually get divorced. She went on to illustrate children’s books and now lives in Montreal. But the story of what happened to them in that apartment on Queen Street wouldn’t be forgotten.
It was a few years after the marriage ended, in the middle of the 1980s, that The Toronto Star seems to have caught up with their old friend Patty. She was interviewed for an article about “buildings that hold the souls of the dead,” though she seems to have given them a different name. It had been more than fifteen years since they’d fled their homes, but she admitted that the memory still haunted them.
“We all seem to have, even now,” she told the paper, “a great horror of finding that ‘it’ will have escaped Queen Street and found its way into our new homes and lives.”
This is just one of the spooky stories I’ve learned about while preparing for my new online course. A Supernatural History of Toronto starts on Thursday!
The course will feature four online lectures filled with tales about the ghosts, monsters and mythical beasts that are said to lurk in our city’s shadows. I’ve been having a wonderfully creepy time doing the research — there are more of these stories than you might think — so I know it’s going to be a lot of fun sharing them together. And don’t worry if you have to miss a week, all the lectures will be recorded so you can watch them whenever you like.
THE SPARK THAT IGNITED THE COLD WAR
There’s one more strange fact I learned about that old building on Queen Street — the one where Kitty Macaulay and Bruce Cockburn spent those terrifying nights half a century ago. As I was researching that story, I stumbled across an unexpected connection to the brand new episode of Canadiana that we released this weekend.
The episode tells the story of a cipher clerk who was working at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa during the Second World War. Within days of the war ending, Igor Gouzenko defected, revealing a secret that would change the world: a Soviet spy ring was operating in the Canadian capital.
People were shocked. Canada and the Soviet Union were close allies during the war. As I say in the episode, “The Canadian government helped send aid and weapons to Russia. Ordinary Canadian citizens raised money to help Russian refugees. Canadian-Soviet friendship associations were formed. Even the Eaton’s department store displayed images of Joseph Stalin in their windows and flew the Communist hammer and sickle above their doors.”
Gouzenko’s revelations shattered the alliance between the Soviets and the West. It’s been called “the spark that ignited the Cold War;” it helped plunge the planet into decades of nuclear tension.
But as it turns out, that still didn’t spell the end for all of those Canadian-Soviet friendship associations. This weekend, I learned that at least one of them is still around today. And in an utterly bizarre coincidence, they seem to own the building on Queen Street where Macaulay and Cockburn lived.
Canadian Friends of the Soviet People is an organization “dedicated to the reestablishment of the Soviet Union as a Socialist state.” According to a Star article from 2019, they’re listed as a tenant at 280 Queen Street and are closely tied to the organization that officially owns the building: The Alexander Duchnovych Society of Carpatho-Russian Canadians. A previous iteration of the group bought the property all the way back in 1950 and have owned it ever since, using an event hall hidden away inside it for social affairs and concerts, members dancing long into the night.
There are much stronger Torontonian links to the story of Igor Gouzenko, too. Our episode is centered on Ottawa, but it’s also deeply connected to the GTA. The secret spy base where Gouzenko was interrogated stood just outside Toronto, on the border between Whitby and Oshawa. And once he was released, he would spend the rest of his life living in Mississauga with a new, secret identity.
His whole story is pretty incredible, a harrowing tale of spycraft and intrigue — and you can watch our episode for free:
You can also read the Toronto Star article that tipped me off to the Soviet link to that haunted building. It’s a lovely piece written by Jennifer Yang, telling the story of four women who attended those dances and are now all buried together beneath a headstone that reads “FRIENDS.” She calls them “The Golden Girls of Prospect Cemetery.”
THE SEA MONSTER OF LAKE ONTARIO
Finally, I can’t resist sharing one last little story from A Supernatural History of Toronto…
It was the summer of 1882 when it was spotted off the shores of Toronto. A 15-metre-long blue-grey serpent, covered in bristles, swimming in the water near Fort York. According to a report by The Toronto Mail, it basked in the sun for a while, snorted at the Torontonians who’d gathered along the shoreline to gawk at it, and then disappeared.
It was only the most recently sighting of what became known as the Lake Ontario Serpent. Newspapers had been reporting on it periodically from communities all over the lake since at least the 1820s. And some believe it’s tied to even older tales, the Haudenosaunee stories of the Gaasyendietha, “a giant serpent that dwells in the deep areas of rivers and lakes in Canada, especially Lake Ontario, [which] could fly on a trail of fire [and] also spew fire.”
Before we continue, just a very quick reminder that The Toronto History Weekly will only survive if enough of you are willing to switch to a paid subscription. Only about 5% of readers have made the switch so far, which basically means that by offering a few dollars a month you’ll be giving the gift of Toronto history to 20 other people. You can make the switch by clicking here:
The best of everything else that’s new in Toronto’s past…
THE LOCAL NEWS — The new edition of local indie mag The Local has been turned over to “an all-Indigenous roster of writers, photographers and artists ... It celebrates art, identity and resilience while looking, sometimes somberly, at the past.” You can read only pieces about the new Indigenous Toronto history anthology, how artist Philip Cote’s collaboration with the TTC is “rewriting the colonial history of Toronto, one streetcar at a time” and more. Read more.
WET PODCAST NEWS — Waterfront Toronto has just launched “a ten-part interactive podcast series on the history, evolution, and future of the Don River/Wonscotonach.” Listen here.
TIME TRAVEL NEWS — Jeremy Hopkin takes us back in time by more than a century at the corner of Queen & Bellefair with this fun little video:
DISAPPEARING PAINTING NEWS — The Canada Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum has temporarily been closed, making way for a Harry Potter show and a T. Rex exhibition. When Jack Landau asked about it, they told him “plans to relocate the Canada collection into a new and improved gallery space are in development.” Read more.
OLD THEATRE NEWS — The Regent Theatre has been standing on Mount Pleasant since the 1920s. It’s currently undergoing renovations to bring it back to life as a performance and event space, so Toronto Storeys took a look at its history and its future. Read more.
WRECKING BALL NEWS — J.R. McConvey does a deep dive that seeks to answer the question “Why Is Canada Tearing Down Its Architectural History?” in The Walrus. Read more.
GLASS CEILING NEWS: Steve Paikin shares the story of the first woman in Ontario to become a cabinet minister: Scarborough’s Margaret Birch. It didn’t happen until the 1970s, so disturbingly recently that this sentence can apply to one of her earliest accomplishments upon getting elected for the first time: “She immediately got down to creating new summer-job programs with a 17-year-old PC activist named John Tory (yes, Toronto’s mayor since 2014).” Read more.
EAST END STREET NEWS — Bob Georgiou explores the complicated evolution of Riverdale Avenue, “with lost and gained extensions, buried waterways, and disappearing transit lines.” Read more.
MACABRE EAST END STREET NEWS — …which prompted Eric Sehr to share another grisly piece of that street’s history on Twitter, which comes to us thanks to a piece by Katherine Taylor. She tells the tale of the day two mysterious human skulls were uncovered by a construction worker, buried in a tin. Read more.
GHOST SIGN NEWS — I’ve often walked past this spot in the Junction and wondered who or what the Earl Selkirk was. Katherine Taylor has the answer:
TORONTO HISTORY EVENTS
GHOSTLY WALK THROUGH THE TOWN OF YORK
October 13, 20 & 28 — 7pm — The Town of York Historical Society & Toronto’s First Post Office
“Brave the darkness as we head into the city to explore the ghostly haunts of the Old Town of York, and hear tales of dread and mystery from those who walked Toronto’s streets before us. The walk will proceed rain or shine, so please dress for the weather. Tours start/end at Toronto’s First Post Office.”
$16.93 for non-members; $11.62 for members
SIDEWALK STORIES: OLD MEETS NEW
October 15 & October 16 — 1:30pm & 4pm both days — Walking Tour — Myseum & The Toronto Society of Architects
“Explore over 150 years of unique architectural history in and around the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, delving into how architects have worked around, added to, repaired, adapted, and even relocated some of the earliest structures in the area. Tour through one of the most remarkable architectural collections in Canada, taking stock of buildings such as the Royal Ontario Museum, the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Robarts Library. Led by Joël León of the Toronto Society of Architects, this walk will challenge preconceptions of what heritage is and raise questions of how to preserve our past while meeting the needs of the future.”
Free with registration!
A DAUGHTER REBELS: THE STORY OF ANNE POWELL
October 20 — 7:30pm — Online — Etobicoke Historical Society
“For Anne Powell in 1807, life in York (now Toronto) was unbearable. Her mother's rules of genteel propriety were intolerable, as were her father's insistence that a daughter's only role in life is to marry. But Anne craved a different future. As a midwife and nurse, she saved a friend from a botched abortion, delivered a servant's baby, and nursed the wounded during the American invasion of York - activities her parents hated and opposed. Author and educator Ann Birch will draw on her research from her historical novel, A Daughter Rebels, to follow the adventures of the real-life Anne Powell as she dared to challenge the norms of early 19th century society.”
Anne Powell was one of the figures I was most fascinated by while writing The Toronto Book of Love!
Free for members; an annual membership is $25.
TRACING IRISH IMMIGRANTS
PART ONE: THE IRISH COME TO TORONTO
October 20 — 7:30pm — Online — Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society
“An exploration of pre-Famine and Famine Irish migration to Toronto in the 19th century, and a reflection on the records used to track Irish individuals and families. There will be a special emphasis placed on tracking nearly 200 Irish orphans who were placed from the Widows and Orphans Asylum in Toronto in 1847–1848. Speaker: Mark G McGowan is a Professor of History and Celtic Studies at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.”
PART TWO: TRANSPORTING IRISH FAMINE EMIGRANTS IN THE CANADAS IN THE SUMMER OF 1847
October 27 — 7:30pm
“Laura Smith and Charmaine Lindsay will give an overview of the Canadian government’s management of destitute emigrants from Ireland during the mid-1840s and particularly in the peak Famine year of 1847. They’ll discuss the findings and progress of the ongoing Tracing Famine Migrants in Ontario project, which is combining a little known group of records known as the Emigration Service Fund, with genealogical and historical research to trace the journeys and ultimate fates of approximately 5000 Irish emigrants who were provided with government transportation into rural townships from Toronto and Cobourg in the summer of 1847. Finally, they’ll discuss ways in which members of Toronto Branch might assist in the next phase of the project which is tracing emigrants treated at Toronto’s Emigrant hospital in the summer of 1847.”
$20 for non-members; $15 for members. Tickets include admission to both events.
FORT YORK AFTER DARK: LANTERN TOUR
October 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29 — 7:30pm — Fort York
“Hear chilling and eerie tales on a lantern tour of Fort York and its historic surroundings. Learn about the unearthly tales of a lighthouse and the bloody Battle of York. Explore the military burial ground. Tour the creepy shadows and 200-year-old buildings of Fort York at night and learn of the fort’s history and its many mysteries.”
COLBORNE LODGE AFTER DARK: LANTERN TOUR
October 26, 27 & 28 — 7pm & 9pm each day — Colborne Lodge in High Park
“Join us for a chilling tour of the grounds of Colborne Lodge. Explore Victorian ideas about death, the afterlife and tales of unexplainable activities.”
SCHOOLING THE SYSTEM: A HISTORY OF BLACK WOMEN TEACHERS
October 27 — 7pm — Online & at Toronto’s First Post Office — Town of York Historical Society
“Dr. Funké Aladejebi will speak about her most recently published book, Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers and her exploration of the intersections between race, gender and access in Canadian educational institutions. ‘Using oral narratives to tell the story of black access and education in Ontario between the 1940s and the 1980s, Schooling the System provides textured insight into how issues of race, gender, class, geographic origin, and training shaped women’s distinct experiences within the profession. By valuing women’s voices and lived experiences, Dr. Funké Aladejebi illustrates that black women, as a diverse group, made vital contributions to the creation and development of anti-racist education in Canada.’”
$22.23 for non-members; $16.93 for members.
ARTIFACTS & APPARITIONS: AN EVENING TALK
October 27 — 6pm — Clark Centre for the Arts (191 Guildwood Pkwy, Scarborough)
“Join us for an informative talk about the history of our site and archival collection with Alex Avdichuk, Supervisor Collections & Conservation for the City of Toronto. You will also get to hear tales of the ghosts that are said to roam our halls.”