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The Tombstone Ghost by Mark Leslie: An Excerpt from Haunted Hamilton

Book Cover Haunted Hamilton

On an otherwise typical Sunday night in June 1971, around the time that Ontario Place opened in Toronto, Federal Express was founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, and The Ed Sullivan Show made its last broadcast on CBS-TV, Norm and Sherrie Bilotti encountered something dark and mysterious in their home—a far more memorable event for them.

Norm Bilotti was startled out of a peaceful midsummer night’s dream by the shrill screams of his wife, Sherrie. When his eyes shot open, he immediately spied what was causing Sherrie’s sudden bout of night terrors: a faceless female shape cloaked in a long flowing gown was hovering just a few feet above their bed. They were both frozen in fear, staring at the figure before them and trying to determine exactly what it was.

Norm vocalized his query, asking his wife what the hell it was as he sat up in the bed. Almost as if in reaction to his voice and motion, the shape slowly moved to the foot of the bed. He was able to estimate her height as approximately six feet before it retreated from the bed and toward the wall. It seemed to grow smaller, then completely vanished.

Not believing his eyes, Norm leapt from the bed, ran to the light switch, and lit up the room. There was nothing by the wall where the figure had disappeared. He moved to other rooms of the house, switching on lights as he went. Again, there was nothing. He continued to check the rest of their ground-floor apartment as well as the yard outside and could find no indication that anyone had entered their apartment.

However this intruder had entered their home, she certainly hadn’t come in through a door or window.

Sherrie explained to her husband that she had felt something behind her, looking at her, and when she opened her eyes, she spotted the figure hovering above her head—that is when she started screaming in terror.

Norm did not believe in ghosts. He admitted that if it had been either of them alone who had seen the spectre, they could have easily passed it off as something they had imagined, or perhaps a brief moment of hysterical insanity. But the fact that they both saw it made them all the more curious.

Ever the scientific mind, not willing to entertain the notion of ghosts, Norm stated that he wanted to see it again in order to understand what it really was. Sherrie, on the other hand, had trouble sleeping without leaving some sort of light on; a habit she continued for a good three weeks after this event.

Twenty-eight days after their first encounter with the ghost, she appeared again.

This time it was Norm who was first woken from his sleep, not by a sound but by the overwhelming feeling of being watched. When he opened his eyes he saw the figure hovering above the bed. Again, it was roughly the size of a woman and draped in flowing robes. But this time the figure’s face and features came into focus. Her face had bulging eyes and hair standing straight up as if it had been charged with electricity.

“Do you see it?” Norm called out to his wife.

She responded that she had and remarked about the hair standing on end.

As Norm surveyed the figure in more detail, noticing it was different from the last time, he observed that it only had half a body. Just the top half of its torso was floating above them.

One of them screamed, likely unable to contain the mounting terror building inside them, and the creature quickly withdrew from above the bed and disappeared.
Despite the fact that the apartment was right beside a graveyard, Norm still refused to believe that what they had seen was a ghost. But he did begin to learn more about the residence from neighbours.

The house they were in had been built twenty-four years earlier by the man who opened an adjacent hardware store. He lived in the house with his wife, who had been crippled and confined to a wheelchair, and their five children. The man was well-respected in the neighbourhood, and following his wife’s death two years earlier, he sold the building; that is when Norm and Sherrie moved in as tenants of the new owner.

Norm worked as a compositor at the Hamilton Spectator, and after some discussion with colleagues at work, he and Sherrie agreed to let a reporter from the newspaper investigate. Details of the investigation were published in the Spectator on November 27 in a feature article called “In Search of a Ghost.” Written by John Bryden, the article documented the mysterious sightings of the Bilotti family as well as the intense investigation that took place.

Twenty-seven-year-old Malcolm Bessent, a professional spiritual medium, was called in. Bessent was from the Human Dimensions Institute of Rosary Hill College in Buffalo, New York. He said he had developed his psychic ability via practised discipline. He explained that he worked best when he was able to keep a calm and almost non-personal approach. If he got too close or personally involved with any of his subjects, he said that his accuracy faded; he chalked it up to emotions as being a clouding factor in the special vision he was gifted with.

Rabbi Bernard Baskin and Dr. A. S. MacPherson also agreed to participate as independent witnesses.

None of the three men involved in this investigation were told of the situation or even where the ghost had supposedly appeared, just that they were investigating an apparent haunting.

One of the first statements Bessent made when he arrived at the scene was that they were dealing with a family of four children. Given what was known at the time, his statement appeared wrong, or at least off by one. Circumstances were eventually uncovered, however, which proved his initial statement correct. The previous family had five children, but one turned out to be adopted. So, while there were five children, the woman whose spirit they believed they were seeing was the birth mother of four.

Bessent expressed his concern at how many people were present in such a small space. He explained that he was apt to receive interference from their thoughts. But when he walked into the bedroom, the situation was immediately clear to him. “There’s definitely something here,” was the first thing he said. Then he added that it was a woman and she was disabled.

At that point, Bessent asked that everyone except the accompanying reporter (John Bryden), the rabbi, and the doctor leave the room. When they left, he became serious, explaining that the woman had died in an extremely painful way and that he was getting a sense of a name starting with S. He suggested a name like Sam or Sarah, as well as the initials S.A. He also alluded to the fact that he kept seeing green and white flowers, and mentioned that the date 1947 was significant.
Later investigation showed that the woman’s maiden name had been Flowers, that the family were active members in the Salvation Army, and that the property had been purchased in 1947. It is possible that the statements Bessent made were simple coincidence, or they might be evidence of some connection he had been making.

The next thing Bessent remarked about was that he was getting an overwhelming sense of an awful, rancid smell associated with the presence, and he commented on it several times. Sherrie Bilotti later talked about occasionally catching the whiff of an awful odour, as if something dead were in the house; only, each time they went to investigate the source (suspecting a plugged drain or some other likely cause), they couldn’t determine where the smell was coming from.

Bessent also talked about hearing screaming all the time: whatever it was that was haunting this apartment was constantly screeching. Then he suggested that the ghost they had seen was very likely trying to draw their attention to something in the room, something nearby, something hidden. He became certain that there was something either in the walls or in the basement, and dragged the investigative team into the basement of the building, where he said there was something hidden there, something hidden between wood and stone.

The Bilottis knew that, as tenants and not owners of the building, they didn’t have any right to be tearing up the floor and walls, so they left it at a thought and something they simply wouldn’t be able to do in their search for answers.

Shortly after speculating that it would be interesting to see what might be behind the walls or under a blocked-off set of stairs, Bessent became fatigued. The investigation wrapped up for the night, and merely a few weeks later, Norm and Sherrie Bilotti moved to a new apartment.

They never saw the eerie spectre in the middle of the night again.

The story would have ended there, and in many ways it did. Norm and Sherrie went on to live a normal, peaceful existence; never again did they wake in the middle of the night to such disturbances. But eleven years later, as reported in the Spectator article entitled “Explain this one!” by reporter Mark McNeil, the secrets hidden in the walls of that Upper Wellington apartment were finally revealed.

In the fall of 1982, Mike Cino’s demolition firm was working at removing the building and adjacent hardware store in order for a parking lot to be developed there. During the demolition, one of his men mentioned he kept hearing strange sounds when he was pulling out the copper. But it wasn’t until the walls were being brought down that the crew discovered something bizarre and shocking—the remains of a nineteenth-century tombstone were trapped inside a wall above the bedroom where Norm and Sherri Bilotti used to sleep.

The tombstone was apparently for a double grave. The top had an inscription that read OUR BABY and below that, on a pair of adjoined stones, were MARTH LOUISE, 1888 and EMMA GRACE, NON 9, 1879.

Cino couldn’t explain what a tombstone might be doing in the walls or why somebody would have removed the tombstone from the neighbouring cemetery; but he did speculate that perhaps it had been used as some kind of support for the wall.

This intriguing discovery was a reminder of psychic Malcolm Bessent’s strong belief that there was something hidden within the walls; of course, the connection between the dual tombstone and the hovering old woman with no legs could never be determined, but there is no denying that there does seem to be a connection there.

Was the ghost the Bilottis saw that of the woman who had been a previous tenant? Perhaps she was trying to draw somebody’s attention to the desecration of her children’s graves, as any bereaved living mother might do: the noises the construction workers heard during the demolition were just one last cry for help from this spirit.

Norm Bilotti returned to the demolition site and posed for a picture in the Spectator, holding the gravestone in front of the rubble of the building he used to live in. The look on his face when he saw the tombstone was not unlike the look of a man seeing a ghost. Except Bilotti didn’t believe in ghosts.

“There has to be another explanation,” he said.

From the book Haunted Hamilton, © 2012, by Mark Leslie. Published in 2012 by Dundurn. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

October 29, 2012
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