Eastern Gothic
From the Dungarvon Whooper, to burning ships and Acadian
whirlwinds, New Brunswick hasn't exorcised its Ghosts.

by Alison Hughes

    My family lived in a classic Victorian Saint John home with a steep, peaked roof. One night when I was twelve, I awoke from a sound sleep in my attic bedroom, aware that someone else was there.

    Across from me, rocking peacefully and knitting, was a grey-haired woman in a high-necked dress. She glanced over without ceasing her work and smiled directly at me so reassuringly that I went calmly back to sleep. In the morning, the rocker had been moved from its normal place to a spot several feet away.

   To this day I am convinced she was not a dream.

   I am far from alone in seeing - or at least believing I saw - a ghost. Strange stories come from the most unexpected people.

   One credible man, a curator, told me of the sweetly scented lilac lady who wafted through rooms in his Sackville home and once brought a drink to his daughter in the night. A professional photographer I know rented a house in Hampton where keys, cups and other small articles constantly shifted locations, or disappeared. Another friend, a no-nonsense Fredericton businesswoman, became so accustomed to unexplained thumping and knocking sounds in her old home that she regularly failed to answer the door for her flesh-and-blood visitors.

   New Brunswick seems particularly rich in phantom folklore. Headless women, phantom boats, hellish hounds and singing spectres apparently frequent every corner of every county. Some are old ghosts, more entertaining than eerie, preserved in the oral tradition through folksongs, poetry and tall tales told to terrify the young. Others carry the weight of first-hand experience recalled by seemingly credible witnesses.

   Fiction, or fact, phantoms haunt our history. While researching New Brunswick ghost stories, I have been by turns both skeptical and scared. I have searched for ordinary explanations of extraordinary events and the many tales that persist and defy them. It is a search down a long blackened hall that piques your curiosity and quickens your pulse.

   HAMPTON author Dorothy Dearborn has published several books of supernatural stories, including New Brunswick Ghosts! Demons! ... and things that go bump in the night! Her research, combined with some unusual experiences, has convinced her that spirits manifest themselves in some strange ways.

   "There are other dimensions. As far as I'm concerned, it's just another dimension and every once in a while it overlaps," she assures me.

   "This happened one night when I wa all alone in the house. That doesn't bother me at all - I'm used to being alone in this big ark of a place. About two or three o'clock in the morning, I woke up with a start and the door to the bedroom just opposite mine was creaking back and forth, back and forth creak, creak.

   "Now that might not sound like a strange thing to happen, - but that door has never creaked. I've slept for years next to that door. It was really eerie because it would start for a while, then stop for a while. I'd doze off to sleep and then I'd wake up with this door going creak, creak, creak, open and closed, as if somebody was going back and forth into the room.

   "I'm lying there thinking about it, wondering what is going on. Who's going in there? And then it dawned on me. A neighbour, who grew up in Hampton, was on his death bed at the time - really, literally on his deathbed As a young man, he had spent a lot of time in this house when it was owned by the McAvitys.

   "The room across from my room used to be a sleeping porch. When the young people were all here, they'd all pile into that sleeping porch, crowds of teenagers and kids and that's where they would all sleep over. It wasn't glassed in, as it is now. It was just a screened-in sleeping porch. And I got thinking, 'Gee whiz, I wonder. It's almost as if he was on his way out and had stopped over just to visit with the ghosts of the other people who used to play, or hang out, on the porch when he was a boy.' I thought, 'I must check and find out tomorrow whether he died.'

   "You know what? He had. And you know what else? That door has never squeaked since. It doesn't squeak when you move it now and it didn't before. It was just doing this on its own. It was just moving back and forth, back and forth, squeaking." To skeptics, Dearborn recommends an open mind.

   "You've got to have that first-hand experience to believe in ghosts," she reflects. "I always think of the story about a Miramichi family sitting around in their big old kitchen after their father's funeral, when all of a sudden the floorboards start to creak up over their heads. One turns to the other one, nods and says, 'Ali, Dad's back."'

   The branches of the Miramichi River claw deep into the interior of the province and into the darkness of memory.

    The Dungarvon River is a branch of the Main Renous River and joins it above the settlement of Quarryville once known as Indiantown. According to a story related by historian W.F. Ganong, the river got its name after a log drive got hung up below the mouth of the river and the crew amused themselves by dancing and stamping in their heavy boots. During the dance, a big Irishman shouted: "Come on, boys, we'll make Dungarvon shake!" perhaps because some of the crew hailed from the town in Ireland. In any case, the name clung to the river.

   Along this branch resides the Dungarvon Whooper - probably the most famous of New Brunswick ghosts. Some still claim to have heard the hair-raising, high-pitched howl that gave the ghost its name - it is the howl of murder, the smell of bacon, the echo of lumber camp injustice.

   Roy MacRae lives handy to the Dungarvon Road, in Blackville. Seventy-one years old next month, he hasn't been back to the Whooper Spring for almost five years now, but he still recalls the way.

   "It's an old mud road back of the Dungarvon for ten mile, or so, and then you have to turn off to an old woods road. Then you go so far and you have to walk the rest of the way. The first spring you come to is what they call the Dead Boy's Spring. Some people think you're there but you're not. You have to walk a piece further, maybe half a mile, through a kind of a woods trail.

   "There at the site you're at Whooper Spring they call it, an old logging camp site. There was kind of a cleared place and still is. Nothing ever grew there much. And there's a stand with a plaque with the Dungarvon Whooper song that Michael Whelan wrote back years ago under glass for anyone to read."

   MacRae is none too sure that there ever was a ghost, but he's been known to convince a few others. Years ago, he entertained groups at the spring with the tale of the young cook, murdered by his lumber camp boss, whose ghost terrified local hunters and lumbermen with its spine-tingling whoops. The storyteller even recorded a few of his own unearthly howls to play as tourists came down the path to the clearing.

   "You don't know what it sounded like?' MacRae queries, giving a sample blood-curdling howl. "Woooooo! It would have sounded something like that, all night."

   He figures there must have been a murder to start the tale in the first place.

    "I suppose this story here was being , wrote to tell you they thought he was murdered at the time."

  Micheal Whalen, Poet of Renous The tale of the Whooper is buried deep in the nineteenth-century mythology of the lumber camps, but it survives in part because a Fredericton-to-Newcastle train, which ran until 1936, was indirectly named after it when a conductor was confronted with rowdy lumberjacks. But mainly it persists because it was written down in song by Michael Whelan and published in a local newspaper in 1912.

   Michael Whelan, the Poet of Renous was born in 1858 in Renous and died in ,Chatham in 1937. He taught school and kept books at a local lumber mill, but his vocation was writing poetry celebrating Miramichi, which he sold in pamphlets. He had known of the legend of the Whooper since he was a boy.

   This is his version of the The Dungarvon Whooper, sung to the tune of Where the Silvery Colorado Sweeps Away:

Far within the forest scene,
Where the trees forever green,
Form a contrast to the beech and birches grey,
Where the snow lies white and deep,
And the song birds seem to sleep,
And cease their sweetest singing all the day.
Where the mighty monstrous moose,
Of limbs both large and loose,
Through the forest sweeps with strides both swift and strong,
Where the caribou and deer
Swim the brooks so crystal clear,
And the mighty deep Dungarvon rolls along.

Where the black bear has his den,
Far beyond the haunts of men,
And the muskrat, mink and marten swi the stream,
Where the squirrel so light and free,
Swiftly springs from tree to tree,
And the lovely snow-white rabbit sleep and dreams;
Where the sounds of toil resound
Far across the frozen ground,
And the thousand things that to the woods belong,
Where the saws and axes ring,
And the woodsmen wildly sing,
And the dark and deep Dungarvon sweeps along.

In a lumber camp one day,
While the crew were faraway,
And no one there but cook and boss alone,
A sad tragedy took place,
And death won another race,
For the young cook swiftly passed to the unknown;
From the day of long ago,
Comes this weary tale of woe,
The sad and solemn subject of my song,
When this young man drooped and died,
In his youth and manhood's pride,
Where the dark and deep Dungarvon sweeps along.

When the crew returned that night,
What a sad scene met their sight,
There lay the young cook silent, cold and dead,
Death was in his curling hair,
In his young face pale and fair,
While his knapsack formed a pillow for his head.
From the belt about his waist
All his money was misplaced,
Which made the men suspect some serious wrong,
Was it murder cold and dread,
That befell the fair young dead
Where the dark and deep Dungarvon rolls along?

When they asked the skipper why
He had made no wild outcry,
He turned away and hid his haughty head;
"Well, the youngster took so sick,
And he died so mighty quick,
I hadn't time to think, " was all he said;
A tear was in each eye,
Each heart it heaved a sigh,
While through each breast the strangest feeling throng;
When each reverent head was bared,
As his funeral they prepared,
Where the mighty deep Dungarvon rolls along.

Fast fell the driven snow,
While the wild winds they did blow,
Till four feet deep upon the ground it lay,
So that on the burial day
To the graveyard far away
To bear the corpse impossible was found.
Then a forest grave was made,
And in it the cook was laid
While the song birds and the woodsmen ceased their song;
When the last farewells were said
O'er the young and lonely dead
Where the dark and deep Dungarvon sweeps along.

When the crew returned at night
Their dear comrade still they mourned,
While the shades o'night were falling o'er the hill,
All that long and fearful night
All the camp was in affright,
Such fearful whoops and yells the forest fill;
Pale and ghastly was each face,
"We shall leave this fearful place,
For this camp unto the demons does belong,
Ere the dawning of the day
We will hasten far away
From where the dark Dungarvon rolls along."

Since that day, so goes the word,
Fearful sounds have long been heard,
Far round the scene where lies the woodsman's grave,
Whoops the stoutest hearts to thrill,
Yells that warmest blood to chill,
Sends terror to the bravest of the brave;
Till beside the grave did stand,
God's good man with lifted hand,
And prayed that He those sounds should not perlong
That those fearful sounds should cease,
And the region rest in peace
Where the dark and deep Dungarvon sweeps along.

Since that day the sounds have ceased
And the region is released
From those most unearthly whoops an screams and yells,
All around the Whooper's spring
There is heard no evil thing,
And round the Whooper's grave sweet silence dwells
Be this story false or true,
I have told it unto you,
As I heard it from the folklore all life long,
So I hope all strife will cease,
And our people dwell in peace,
Where the dark and deep Dungarvon sweeps along.

   Whether the tale was a response to an alleged murder or to the screech owls and panther howls heard in the woods is now impossible to determine. But according to Louise Manny, author of Folksongs of the Miramichi (1968), Whelan's version is only one of many.

   "It now has among its attributes ever-blooming flowers on the grave, a ghost which rises screaming if the grave is disturbed, a feu follet type of apparition, or rather sound, which entices the hearer into the woods, where he is lost, or sometimes lures him with the smell of frying bacon, or a shrieking spectre which comes nearer and nearer to the unlucky person who answers the sounds. Finally, in this last version, the scream is heard directly over the answerer, in the open air, and he is too terrified to answer it again."

Rev. Edward S. Murdoch, priest of Renous   The story was taken seriously enough by the turn of the century that Rev. Edward Murdoch, a Roman Catholic priest from Renous, came up the Dungarvon to perform an exorcism on the site. According to Dr. Manny: "It is said that after this the evil spirit which was responsible for the horrible sounds was heard no more. But people say they still hear the Whooper, and they fear to visit the grave by Whooper Spring."

   These days, the story's fame has spread so far that MacRae has had calls from all over. One woman from the Southern United States phoned convinced that the Dungarvon Whoope was a monstrous fish. She wanted MacRae to describe it so she could knit it into a sweater for her husband.

    RONALD LABELLE is in charge of the folklore archives at the universalé de Moncton. Part of the Centre d'Études Acadien, the archives has many Acadian oral histories taped over the past 30 years, including stories of the supernatural. He suggests that a strong belief in Purgatory helps to explain why so many ghost stories come from the Roman Catholic Acadian, Irish and Scots cultures.

   "There is the example of praying for the souls of deceased people, or they will come and haunt you, and stories of ghosts coming back to ask for prayers, he points out. "Often when les revenants [the ghosts] appear, it's because their souls are wandering and they won't be able to get into heaven because of something they did wrong and they're trying to come back to set it right."

   In the course of collecting local histories, Labelle occasionally interviews those who reluctantly share a mysterious experience. That was the case with one Acadian man, a merchant, still living in the location where it happened, who prefers that his identity not be revealed.

   "He hesitated for quite a while before telling me this story because just to reminisce, to go over a story like that, is terrifying;" recounts Labelle. "There are some people who have a whole repertoire and tend to tell stories with a lot of exaggeration, but this is just a fellow who is not that way at all.

   "This story stayed in my mind because it was told to me by someone who actually experienced it. You tend to think of ghosts appearing at night, in the dark, but in this story, what actually happened was in broad daylight, about forty years ago.

    "There was a merchant in a little village in Northeastern New Brunswick. A young man who lived in the village was going off to go fishing on the coast for several months and asked the merchant to supply groceries from his store for his aged parents. He told the merchant that when he came back after working he'd be able to pay back the whole debt.

   "So the merchant supplied this couple with groceries for a few months. When the man came back after the fishing season, he didn't pay back the debt but spent his money on buying a car instead. The merchant had kept all the bills ready in a box to have them reimbursed. When he saw that the man had bought a car instead of paying the bills he said in anger, 'He can go to hell and take my bills with him!'

   "Just about a week later, the young fellow went out fishing in a small boat. The boat got tangled up and the water was rough and he fell overboard and drowned.

   "Not long after, the merchant was out in his fields, cutting down some hay. While he was working, a big wind came up all of a sudden. In the middle of this whirlwind, the drowned man appeared to him. His hair was blowing around in the wind and his face was very clear. He was even wearing clothes and rubber boots that came from the man's store. The merchant could describe them exactly.

   "He got quite a fright seeing the dead man. He called to a fellow working at the other end of the field and said, 'I've got to go home right away.' So he went home, and he took the box with the bills he had kept and he threw them in the wood stove and burned them.

   "That very night, the father of the man who had drowned came to the merchant's house and said, 'I was out today with my dog and the dog was howling and howling like there was something there. I felt strange and my dog wouldn't stop howling all day. I decided I just have to pay back those bills that we owe you."And the merchant replied, 'You can, forget about those bills I just burned them in the woodstove today."

    "Later on, the father went to see the parish priest to tell him and ask him what he thought. The priest said that if the son's soul was in Purgatory, he probably had to make right the debt that he owed in order to get into heaven."

   This is a theme common to many ghost stories in areas where priests appealed to the popular imagination to help keep their parishioners in line. Labelle recounts another story from the archives where a priest was leading a November 1, All Saints Day candlelight_ procession through a rural cemetery. He offered to raise the spirits of any family members buried there so their relatives could discover if they were damned, or in heaven, but his flock was far too frightened to take him up on the offer.

   Of course, this was partially due to superstitions completely unrelated to the Christian religion. Prior to adopting the Roman calendar, the Celtic year ended on October 3 1, the night when spirits would return from the dead to roam. It later became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

   "It's a very interesting custom, Halloween, because its origins go back directly to ancient times," says Labelle, "There are other holidays that might have indirectly some ancient origins, but the practices that came from the old pagan beliefs of the spirits returning from the dead on the eve of November 1 have been maintained all the way till now."

   Halloween witches, bonfires and Jack o' Lanterns derive from these ancient traditions.Witches were evil spirits riding straw brooms associated with the harvest season. Firelight was one way to protect against these forces of darkness, whether in large bonfires, or placed in homes. Apparently the Scots originally carved faces and placed candies in hollowed out turnips, with pumpkins being a later North American adaptation.

   Because people were afraid to go out on the night of October 31, it became a perfect time for the less timorous young people to play tricks on their neighbours. There were some particular favourites among the Acadians, going back to the nineteenth century. The more ingenious the prank, the prouder the participants were.

    One popular trick in Southeastern New Brunswick was moving outhouses. A group would get together and put the structure up in a tree, or move it to another location completely. Ox carts and farm wagons might be painted red and suspended in a tree, or put in someone else's barn, while livestock could be found the next morning at the other end of a village.

    Even a hundred years ago, events would sometimes get out of hand. One story reported in the newspaper L'Evangeline happened around Cocagne in the 1880s. A man making outhouses for a school under construction suspected that Halloween would be too much temptation for local pranksters. He and his son stood watch and caught a group trying to carry away the outhouses in the night. While discharging a warning shot into the air, the man tripped, shot a fellow in the arm and subsequently was taken to court. Another newspaper account records a lawyer pressing charges against vandals who uprooted his newly planted trees.

   "Things like that I find interesting because, in general, people back then wouldn't have done any harm. Usually what they did could be fixed up the next day, maybe with a lot of work, but it wouldn't cause any hardship," says Labelle.

   Around the middle of the twentieth century, however, the practice of burning down abandoned buildings in gigantic bonfires caused some serious loss of equipment. A movement against the pranks ended the fires and most of the tricks.

Phantom Ship of legends

   Quite apart from spirits associated with people and places, is the maritime phenomenon of the phantom ship. While ghostly vessels are often found a omens of disaster in European folktales in New Brunswick they usually portend nothing worse than a coming storm. In Stuart Trueman's collection, Ghosts, Pirates and Treasure Trove: Phantoms that Haunt New Brunswick, he quotes more than a dozen eye-witness sightings in modern times, from St. Martins to Shippagan. By far the most famous spectral vessel is the phantom ship of the Baie des Chaleurs. For over a hundred years, everyone from a locomotive fireman to an entire Sunday school class with clergy have sighted the flaming vessel floating offshore.

   "Smoke was billowing up through the rigging. Figures were rushing to and fro on her decks. I called the engineer and he said 'Hell, that's just the Burning Ship,' " reported Richard Jefferson of Grand Anse, in 1892.

   Those who believe it is a supernatural ship call it by different names. To some, it is the John Craig, wrecked in a gale in the 1700s. Others cite shipwrecks during the 1760 Battle of the Restigouche, when the Seven Years War culminated in the destruction of French warships that sought refuge the Baie des Chaleurs. The phantomship phenomenon is intriguing in its persistence. Something recurs on these waters, usually preceding a storm. Many believe it is St. Elmo's fire, a luminous electrical discharge that occasionally glows on steeples, or even around people's heads, during thunderstorms. Phantom ship witnesses describe balls of fire in the masts, likening them to lanterns or flames. Others see figures working on the flaming decks in such detail that it is difficult to account for the sightings as mirages.

   Other scientific explanations include the sea fogs that can make islands appear to float above the water, or the microscopic creatures that sparkle with bio-luminescence in salt waters.

    Yet, science rarely seems convincing in its explanations of the supernatural; psychology is only marginally more so. Ghosts - whether they are crewing phantom ships or cooking bacon in the woods - reside somewhere just beyond the rational grasp, somewhere within the twilight fog of our personal experience and the rising smoke of the campfire story.

   Increasingly, they are beyond our grasp too. The lumber camps are no more and the small communities where many ghost stories were told are no longer so insular. There are few people who will attest to hearing a whoop in the woods or fire on the water, fewer families living in homes old enough to have housed generations of life stories before them.

   That New Brunswick ghost stories are tied to the woods and to the sea - places where men worked and died - is hardly startling. The further we get from the woods and the sea - from a way of life tied to the wilds and the elements - the less we fear them. Yet we cannot totally exorcise our dread of being lost in the forest's dark; or feel, in every widow's walk, the presence of something lost and a spirit that remains.

   The only explanation of the rocking-chair spectre I saw from my attic bedroom as a child came from my mother. She told me it could have been my grandmother who died before I was born and had come back to watch over me.

   Perhaps New Brunswick ghost stories have become like this childhood vision almost too familiar to be scary. Almost comforting in their innocence and therefore more an acknowledgement of the presence of our ancestors than the manifestation of our fears.

   Yet, as suredly as Dungarvon sweeps along, peaceful waters can deepen and darken. If I were to research the history of my childhood home, what murderous tales might I turn up? What scars are hidden under that high-necked dress of my rocking spectre? What weapons could those knitting needles have become?

   All I know is what I saw and what I believe.

Alison Hughes is a reporter with the Telegraph Journal.