The Witch of Plum Hollow
by Melanie King
Illustration: Caricature of Mother Barnes
by Gordon Johnston. Courtesy the National Archives of Canada,
Elizabeth Barnes was many things, but
witch wasnt one of them. She was a mother, grandmother,
clairvoyant, soothsayer and water dowser. She was the seventh
daughter of a seventh daughter, which she claimed was the
reason behind her second sight and sixth
As much mystery surrounds Elizabeth Barnes
now, more than 100 years after her death, as during her lifetime.
Some sources show her date of birth simply as 1794 and her
death date as 1886, while others claim that she was born on
November 5, 1800 and died on February 10, 1891. Genealogical
research has been unable to confirm or deny these dates.
She was born Jane Elizabeth Martin in
County Cork, Ireland to a well-to-do family. Her father was
an Irish landowner of English descent, a colonel in the British
Army and a strict disciplinarian. Her mother was an Irish
lady of Spanish Gypsy descent. Elizabeths father had
arranged her marriage to a colonel friend of his who was at
least twice as old as his daughter. Twenty-year-old Elizabeth
sat by and watched as the arrangements took place. She was
in love with a much younger man, Robert Joseph Harrison, who
was also a military man. As her impending wedding day approached,
her love came to her in the night and they quietly stole away
and eloped to North America.
Here again, there is some controversy.
Some sources claim that the newlyweds settled in the United
States while others claim they came to Canada and settled
near Cobourg, Ontario.
When Elizabeths parents discovered
that she had married someone not of their choosing, not to
mention beneath her station, they disowned her.
Elizabeth was completely devoted to Robert
and loved him with all her heart. Early in their marriage
they were blessed by the birth of their son, Robert Harrison,
Tragedy struck when Elizabeth was just
27. Her beloved husband died, leaving her on her own to raise
their son. She mourned her loss deeply and for a few years
all that kept her going was Robert, Jr.
About four years after the death of her
husband, Elizabeth married David Barnes, a native of Connecticut
and a shoemaker by trade. Together they had nine children;
six sons and three daughters. Their two oldest sons, John
and Thomas, died as young children. In the autumn of 1843,
David, Elizabeth and Robert Jr. moved to Sheldons Corners
near Athens, Ontario. It isnt certain when Elizabeth
discovered her gift, but it was after their arrival
here that her use of it is first documented, which led to
the fear that some area people felt towards her and the respect
that others showed her. It was here that she was first referred
to as Mother Barnes.
Housework was never a favourite chore
of Elizabeths, but as much as she detested it, she did
Elizabeth and David raised seven children
here, but in time, David lost interest in farming and decided
it was time to move on. He took their youngest son, David,
with him and moved to Smiths Falls, where the two stayed with
an older son, Sam, who had ten children of his own.
Robert, Jr. joined the American Army and
had become a colonel in the Civil War when he died in Kansas.
With a houseful of children to feed, Elizabeth
turned to fortune telling to support them. It wasnt
long before her reputation spread and people from near and
far were coming to have their fortunes told by the kindly
woman. Her success was quickly followed by fame.
Some of these people who came to see her
offered her great sums of money, but she never accepted more
than her usual fee of 25 cents.
It was during this time that a young reporter
came to interview her and coined the title Witch of
Plum Hollow. This wasnt meant to be a derogatory
title, more a title of respect, meaning wise woman.
However, the title stuck and Mother Barnes is still referred
to as the Witch of Plum Hollow.
After her son Williston married, he stayed
at home and his wife took over the housework that Mother Barnes
hated. Her son Sam, who later became reeve of Smiths Falls,
sent his children to visit their grandmother for holidays.
Former neighbours recall seeing many wagons
and buckboards coming from all directions to the tiny house
where Mother Barnes and her children lived.
These same people also recall climbing
the rickety stairs, only to come across a woman wearing a
shawl over her shoulders, sitting at a table with a pot of
tea beside her.
Stories of her clairvoyant prowess included
her ability to tell where the body of Morgan Doxtader would
be found. She was also able to tell that it was his cousin
Edgar Harter who murdered him. He later was hanged for the
crime in Brockville.
Another man who had lost several sheep
came to her to find out where his missing animals were. She
told him that the meat was in a barrel in his neighbours
cellar and that the hides were tacked on the walls of this
neighbours stable. Although his name isnt mentioned,
she did tell the man who this neighbour was. When he checked
the stables, he found the hides of his missing sheep where
she said they would be.
A young woman, about to be married, was
told that she would marry, have children and live in a house
beside a railroad track. During this time, one of her children
would be killed. The young woman did marry, have children
and the family did move to a house next to a railroad track.
The young mother was in constant terror that one of her children
would be hit by a train and killed. Eventually, one of her
children was killed, but it was the result of a kick from
a horse in their own yard.
Dr. W. F. Jackson came to Mother Barnes
to find a missing deed. She told him that It is tied
with a blue satin ribbon and is hidden in a white satin slipper
in the home of a relative, whose name she also mentioned.
When the house was later searched, the deed was found in the
slipper which was hidden in a dresser drawer.
A Mr. Bailey of Innisfil came to find
out where his horses had disappeared. During his visit with
Mother Barnes, she told him that while one of his fields was
terrible grazing land, it was very valuable. After Mr. Bailey
sold the farm, the new owner opened a gravel pit in this field
which made him thousands of dollars.
A group of young people drove to her cabin
to have their fortunes told. One girl, who was visiting the
area, asked Mother Barnes if she would marry the young man
she was currently keeping company with. She was
told no, that she would marry the young man who had driven
them this day. When he later entered the room, he was told
that the young lady who had just left would be his wife. The
two eventually married, but it is entirely possible that the
prophesy is what gave them the idea.
Before Confederation, Canada was two provincesUpper
and Lower Canada. The capital had been shifted about many
times. John A. Macdonald, then attorney general for Upper
Canada, went to Mother Barnes to see if she could tell where
the location of the new capital would be. She told him that
Queen Victoria would pick the city on the south side of the
Ottawa River known as Bytown, now known as Ottawa. She also
went on to predict that this young man would become prime
Elizabeth Barnes was a small woman, barely
five feet tall, with slender hands and tapered fingers. Her
sharp, penetrating eyes were of great value to her as she
read not so much the tea leaves of the people who came to
see her, but their faces.
In addition to her own family, she raised
three orphan children. When she died, she left 68 direct living
descendants: seven children, 47 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren.
Elizabeth Barnes was buried in an unmarked
grave in the Sheldon Cemetery. In later years, a headstone
was erected by Claude and Ella Flood, cheese makers at nearby
Plum Hollow from 1924 to 1974, to mark her previously unmarked
grave. This stone uses 1794 as the year of her birth and 1886
as the year of her death.
The little cabin still stands, although
in a serious state of disrepair. The June day that the author
drove by the site, a blue tarp covered a good portion of the
roof and it appeared that there were windows stacked neatly
against each other at one end of the cottage. A large boulder
with a commemorative plaque, erected by her descendants, stands
under the shade of a tree, proclaiming the site to be the
Home of Mother Barnes.
Sometime after the authors visit
in June, the property has been put up for sale. The current
owner wanted to restore the cabin and had begun shoring up
the structure. The plaque has been removed from the boulder
because it had been used as target practice and the owner
didnt want it to be damaged further. With the exception
of its local historical significance, there is
no other historic designation.
We can only hope that the future owner
of the property is as sympathetic to the local significance
of the site and continues the restoration efforts of the current
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 41, Winter 2003. Copyright Melanie King.
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