As Halloween approaches, one site at Fort Edmonton Park will get special attention from ghost hunters, paranormal enthusiasts and tourists looking for a good scare. It’s the legendary Firkins home, a place surrounded by an urban myth that overshadows its importance as a well-preserved historic home.
The elements of the myth vary from storyteller to storyteller: A woman’s spirit floating by a bookcase; a ventriloquist doll materializing in cupboards; apparitions of a sickly boy. Some accounts claim the ghost is a small boy, young enough to enjoy playing with a red ball; others say he’s a teenager, old enough to study a book of magic. In some versions, he dies of tuberculosis; in others he’s padlocked in a storage area, then murdered by his father, Dr. Ashley M. Firkins.
Factually, Dr. Firkins is a real person. He was the home’s original owner, an esteemed dentist and American adventurer who moved with his wife to Edmonton from Chicago in 1912. Several other residents called the place home until 1992, when it was donated to the park, which happily accepted it for its faultless Edwardian architecture and many original fixtures. But when park officials took the house from the property of the Karpetz family, they were warned: this house is haunted. Even a construction crew reported strange occurrences – tools missing, window panes falling and landing perfectly intact – while they repaired the home and readied it for the hundreds of visitors it would get each day.
But according to Sally Scott, a historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park who portrays Mrs. Blanche Firkins several days a week, there’s nothing more to the house than great architecture. “I personally find it the most comfortable house in the park,” she says. “Not because the other houses are creepy, but because the Firkins house was built in one of the styles considered the most conducive to raising a family, so of course it’s comfortable.”
Aside from the fact that Fort Edmonton staff – who spend the most time in the home – have never experienced any strange goings-on, the various ghost stories can be repudiated by sheer fact. ” [The Firkins family] didn’t have a son. They had two daughters, both of whom lived happily in the home from their births until moving to California in 1923,” says Kevin Spaans, who played Firkins at Fort Edmonton Park until being promoted to program co-ordinator. Spaans says that after much research, he learned the only resident of the house to ever pass away died decades later in an accident on Whitemud Drive.
Spaans spent years working in costume, embodying and studying Dr. Firkins, who was killed in the 1933 California earthquake. He believes the ghost stories “reduce a family’s entire history to a one-line anecdote.”
Barbara Smith, the Canadian author of Alberta Ghost Stories, More Alberta Ghost Stories and Even More Alberta Ghost Stories, says ghost stories are myths and “mythology has, for thousands of years, been a legitimate way to look at our history, and especially our social history. My feeling is very much that we are honouring the fact that these people did exist.”
Although she has written extensively about the home, Smith has never linked the haunted tales to the legacy of the Firkins. That part of the fable germinated in a way not unlike any other urban legend, except that it eventually found its way to the now-defunct TV show Creepy Canada.
In fact, many of the questions Scott and her colleagues field from tourists don’t have to do with history, but with a segment of Creepy Canada that, among other unfounded claims, fabricated the elements of a book of magic and a paranormal doll (said to be the boy’s only friend). “It’s all bullshit,” says Spaans. “Arrange to use the building for a shoot at night, hire a boy to walk around in pyjama pants, throw in the interview with a Fort Edmonton Park rep [who spoke only about the park’s tourism] to make it look like we support their tale – and voila!”
The episode was never pulled from syndication and still bamboozles new fans with a re-enactment using a soap opera’s soft focus and actors that could only horrify their acting coaches.
Smith says Creepy Canada wanted to hire her as a consultant years ago, but she refused because the show represents ghost stories without sophistication or dignity. “If I could create anything that fantastic, I’d be writing fiction,” she says.
Spaans admits that some of the park’s board members have no problem with the mythology, because it attracts loads of tourists, especially in October.
And when they come, the tourists will find Scott and her pretend husband sitting on the porch of the old Firkins home sipping tea, nibbling cucumber sandwiches, discussing Edwardian poetry with ardent loquacity and quashing every supernatural inquiry like Whac-A-Mole. As annoying as it is, Scott doesn’t fret about it. “Most people end up being quite interested in the family’s and the house’s actual histories when we tell them that the ghost stories aren’t true.”