The Witch of Plum Hollow

As we come upon another session of Camp NaNoWriMo, I can’t help but look back on all the projects I’ve worked on during these spring & summer writing retreats.

My story ideas can come from anywhere. Strange snippets of conversation, weird news articles I read online, not to mention local places and faces that inspire.

So, during my first attempt at writing a novel-in-a-month, I searched around for images to inspire one of my favorite places to set a story: the Creepy Small Town.

Enter Ontario Abandoned Places, an online database of user-submitted photos of sometimes forgotten, often abandoned places here in Ontario, Canada.


I’m not even sure how I stumbled upon this entry for the little cabin said to belong to the so-called Witch Of Plum Hollow…but I was instantly intrigued by the story.

As the story goes, Elizabeth Barnes wasn’t a witch at all but a clairvoyant. She credited her “second sight” on the fact that she was born as the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter.

Photo from http://www.pinecone.on.ca/

Born in Ireland, she and her sweetheart moved to Canada, where they had a child. Tragically, he died, leaving Elizabeth to raise their son alone. A few years later, she married again, and had 9 children. Around 1843, the large family moved to a town near Athens, Ontario. The first reports of Elizabeth’s abilities surfaced after this relocation, with locals calling her “Mother Barnes”.

Apparently, Elizabeth turned to fortune telling over tea leaves to support her family. People far and wide came to her for her counsel. It was a local reporter who coined the title “Witch of Plum Hollow”.

Over time, she utilized her powers to locate buried treasures, identify crimes of passion, locate lost personal items, and even reveal future loves. It has even been said that one of Canada’s prime ministers, John A. Macdonald, the Attorney General of Upper Canada at the time, paid Mother Barnes a visit.


Elizabeth continued to use her abilities in the tiny cabin south of Ottawa until she died at the age of 92. Originally buried in an unmarked grave, she later receive a proper headstone put there by locals who revered their mystical witch.

The original log cabin where so many came to seek Mother Barnes’ advice fell into disrepair. After some time, it was restored and it now on sale! Yes, for anyone looking to surround themselves in the mystique and mystery of the purported “witch” can purchase the old cabin for $250,000.


The old cabin sits on Mother Barnes Road, south of Ottawa near Smiths Falls. Whether you believe in her abilities or not is a matter of opinion. It’s obvious from various news articles that Elizabeth Barnes was well-loved and respected for her kindness and wisdom.


So, wondering whatever came of this “quick” search of mine for inspiration? I was actually researching for the main character of the book. When I read about Mother Barnes, I was immediately inspired. Her story ended up becoming a great starting point to brainstorm the back story for a completely different character.

Even though both books are still works-in-progress, I found some new story seeds to fold into the other story lines. And apparently, I’m not the only person inspired by the story of Elizabeth Barnes. You can find a reproduction of a book originally published in the 1920’s about Elizabeth online!

Another book, Mother Barnes, The Witch of Plum Hollow – A Collected History (2007), was released in 2007 by author Patti Miller when the refurbished old cabin was unveiled.

It’s interesting to see how local lore begins. It’s even cooler to see how the real person behind those tales can inspire fantastical tales, whether my own or others.

Photo by http://seminars.torontoghosts.org/







  • Erica
    June 22, 2017

    What an incredible history. Something about her revered title rolls of the tongue. LOVE

    • Lila
      December 9, 2020

      Hi. I was raised in Plum Hollow. My home town. I always said and will always say it has a creep to it.

      Lila Laming

  • Peggy
    October 9, 2018

    I’ve been researching Elizabeth Barnes for work and its been fascinating! There are so many stories and articles about her that were written in the 1800s. I’m so surprised that she isn’t better known outside of the Athens/Brockville/ Smithfalls area!

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