Archeologist digs into the history behind old N.S. houses, one shoe at a time

An archeologist wants to learn more about historic construction in Nova Scotia — and things like old shoes and superstitious markings can provide some clues.

Laura de Boer is a senior archeologist with the cultural resource management firm Davis MacIntyre and Associates, but in her spare time she’s been working on a side project to find out more about the construction of Nova Scotia’s heritage buildings, how they’re framed and laid out, and some of the superstitious practices hidden within their walls.

She became interested in the subject about 10 years ago.

“I can’t find specific Nova Scotia or even Atlantic Canada books about subjects like this. It’s usually just external architecture,” she said.

“So I’m starting to try and gather data and compare it to New England, to England, to other areas around the world where we’re having similar instances and finding out what’s similar and what’s different.”

So far, de Boer is speaking with people around the province who own older homes to find out more about the history behind them and the strange customs that took place there decades ago.

A shoe-in for history

One of them is Ina Amirault, who’s in the process of renovating her old family home in Lower West Pubnico, N.S., after not living there for 40 years. Last week, a contractor found a child’s shoe in the wall beneath a window of the house, which was built by her grandfather’s grandfather in the 1830s.

Since it’s her family home, it’s likely the shoe belonged to one of Amirault’s relatives.

“Some people said, ‘Oh, that’s really creepy,'” said Amirault, who currently lives in Dartmouth, N.S. “I think it’s precious. I think it’s a connection to the history.”

The shoe was found in the wall beneath a window of Amirault’s family home. (Ina Amirault)

Before the 20th century, people would sometimes conceal shoes in their walls, believing it could ward off the devil and bad spirits. It was especially common in England and New England.

De Boer said the shoes, most commonly children’s and women’s, would often be placed near the opening of a house, like a window or chimney.

“The thinking is that because a shoe is one of the few items of clothing that holds the shape of the body when it’s not being worn, it can kind of act as a substitute as a person, either to distract the devil or the bad influence coming to the house, or to act as a deterrence to kick the bad influence out,” she said.

Amirault posted the discovery to the Facebook group Saving Abandoned Nova Scotia, where some people replied to her post saying that they, too, have found a shoe in their walls.

De Boer said the custom was more common than people may think.

“I think it’s the kind of thing that people, when they’re renovating their house, they’re finding the shoe and not realizing the superstition and the tradition behind it, and thinking, ‘Huh, that’s weird, found a shoe in the wall,'” she said.

Laura de Boer is shown during a project next to Province House in Halifax. (Courtney Glen)

Amirault said she had been prepared for the prospect of making such a discovery, and had asked the contractors working on the house to keep an eye out for any errant footwear in the walls.

She said she will do some more digging into her family history to try to find out who the shoe may have belonged to. She’s also planning to contact the museum in Pubnico to figure out if the shoe can be cleaned up a little. 

Then, Amirault plans to put it in a wooden box with a glass front, and put it back in the wall so it can still be seen.

In the meantime, she’s storing the relic in a plastic box for safekeeping. “I’ve been carrying it around like a baby.”

Amirault is in the process of renovating her family home, which was built in the 1830s. (Ina Amirault)

De Boer said shoes have been found in a number of old buildings in Nova Scotia, including at Government House, Knaut–Rhuland House in Lunenburg, Quaker House in Dartmouth and Perkins House in Liverpool.

Saving ‘forgotten history’

Steve Skafte, who runs the Saving Abandoned Nova Scotia Facebook group, said it was the first time he had seen a post in his group about a concealed shoe. The group showcases restorations of old buildings, vehicles and places in Nova Scotia.

He started the group as an offshoot of another group called Abandoned Nova Scotia, to show that there are many people who are interested in preserving the province’s history and abandoned places.

“It seemed that there was so much interest in saving these places, or what could be done with them,” said Skafte.

“There is so much being renovated and so much architectural history being restored and saved around here, that it’s good to see people sharing those stories.”

Skafte has a number of projects about abandoned places in Nova Scotia, from cemeteries to roads. He said through these projects, he’s learned that “there’s always more to discover than you might think.”

“I grew up here and I had no idea that there were things basically left behind everywhere, every corner,” he said. “There is forgotten history everywhere.”

Steve Skafte runs the Saving Abandoned Nova Scotia Facebook group. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

De Boer, who connected with Amirault through Saving Abandoned Nova Scotia, said the group is “hugely valuable in terms of understanding that heritage and history is something that we share ownership of.”

“It belongs to us, but also we can give it to other people and find out what’s universal across the province,” she said.

The search for a witch bottle

De Boer has also seen superstitious markings and graffiti in historic Nova Scotia buildings — such as the hexafoil, or daisy wheel, which was seen as another way to deter witches.

While they haven’t been found much in Canada, de Boer is keen to get her hands on a “witch bottle,” which she described as a “pretty gross” way to reverse a witch’s curse.

If a person believed they were cursed by a witch, they could put their urine in a bottle, along with items like a piece of leather, nails or their hair. They could then boil it or store it within their house.

“And the idea was it would bounce the curse back to the witch and give her a bladder infection so that she would take her curse off of you,” said de Boer.

While witch bottles have been mostly found in England and some parts of the United States, a bottle has been discovered before in Newfoundland, leading de Boer to believe there could be some bottles in Nova Scotia.

“It’s such a weird thing and it’s so common everywhere else that I feel like there’s got to be some instances of it in Nova Scotia and we just haven’t identified it yet,” she said.

“As much as you don’t really want to find something with 200-year-old urine in it, it could still be really cool and interesting.”

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