Canadian History Lingers at Bellevue House

Photo by Michael Kleen

Once home to Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, some visitors to Bellevue House report encountering unexplained sights and sounds.

Though Sir. John A. Macdonald and his family lived here less than two years, their presence has come to define this 180-year-old Italianate villa, while brief glimpses of an ethereal woman and her child fuel speculation that tragic deaths have left a lasting stain on this Canadian National Landmark.

A wealthy merchant named Charles Hales built the unusually-shaped green and white home at 35 Centre Street in Kingston, Ontario in 1840. The house has two wings extending out from a single tower, with seven levels throughout its three floors. It was located in what was then Kingston’s picturesque outskirts. Because of its eccentric architectural features, local residents dubbed the house ‘Tea Caddy Castle’, ‘Muscovado Cottage’, ‘Pekoe Pagoda’, and ‘Molasses Hall’.

Sir. John Alexander Macdonald (1815-1891) was a Scottish immigrant to British Canada who determinedly rose to become a prominent lawyer and legislator. He went on to help establish Canada as a nation and became its first prime minister in 1867. He met his cousin, Isabella Clark, during a trip to Britain in 1842, and after she traveled to Kingston to visit her sister, the two were married in September 1843. Isabella fell ill just two years later, and never fully recovered.

By that time, Macdonald had become a legislator for the Province of Canada. Isabella spent three years in Georgia, hoping the warm climate would relieve her illness. The couple had their first child in 1847. That child suddenly died thirteen months later when the couple reunited in Kingston. It was during this turbulent time the Macdonalds rented Charles Hales’ Italianate villa on Centre Street.

As John Macdonald gained in political prominence, his wife gave birth to another baby boy. John also began his notorious bouts of drinking. After being bedridden and in poor health for years, Isabella died on December 28, 1857. The couple’s second son, Hugh John, lived to adulthood. When it comes to legends associated with Bellevue House, it’s important to note that both Isabella and her husband died many years after the couple moved from the home.

Since being purchased by Parks Canada in 1964 and opening for tours in 1967, visitors have reported unusual encounters attributed to the ghosts of a woman and her child, which many interpret as Isabella and her first child.

Not so, says Glen Shackleton, author of Ghosts of Kingston (2007) and proprietor of Kingston Haunted Walks. Years before renting his home to the Macdonalds, tragedy struck Charles Hale when his five-month-old son died, followed by his wife, Elizabeth, a few weeks later. These tragic deaths might account for the lingering presence, according to Shackleton.

The master bedroom seems to be the focal point of strange activity. Visitors and staff report seeing the silhouette of a man standing in the bedroom, feel a presence, or notice the bed sheets disturbed. The alarm has also gone off in that room without explanation. On one tour, a young child wandered upstairs and was quite unsettled by the appearance–and disappearance–of a woman and her child.

Bellevue House was closed for a two million-dollar facelift for two seasons in 2018 and 2019, and visitors were admitted only to the exterior and gardens. Only time will tell whether these improvements will agitate or satiate its invisible residents.

Bellevue House National Historic Site, at 35 Centre Street in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, is open daily July 1st through September 2nd, 10am to 5pm, and on select days off season. Contact (613) 545-8666 or visit Hours of Operations for more information. Admission is $7.90 for adults and free for kids under 17 years old.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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