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
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
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,
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
"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
"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."
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
Far within the forest scene,
the trees forever green,
Form a contrast to the beech and birches
Where the snow lies white and deep,
And the song birds seem to
And cease their sweetest singing all the day.
Where the mighty
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
Where the black bear has his den,
Far beyond the haunts of men,
And the muskrat, mink and marten swi the
Where the squirrel so light and free,
Swiftly springs from tree
And the lovely snow-white rabbit sleep and dreams;
sounds of toil resound
Far across the frozen ground,
And the thousand
things that to the woods belong,
Where the saws and axes ring,
the woodsmen wildly sing,
And the dark and deep Dungarvon sweeps
In a lumber camp one day,
crew were faraway,
And no one there but cook and boss alone,
tragedy took place,
And death won another race,
For the young cook
swiftly passed to the unknown;
From the day of long ago,
weary tale of woe,
The sad and solemn subject of my song,
young man drooped and died,
In his youth and manhood's pride,
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
Death was in his curling hair,
In his young face pale and
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,
the fair young dead
Where the dark and deep Dungarvon rolls along?
When they asked the skipper why
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,
hadn't time to think, " was all he said;
A tear was in each eye,
heart it heaved a sigh,
While through each breast the strangest feeling
When each reverent head was bared,
As his funeral they
Where the mighty deep Dungarvon rolls along.
Fast fell the driven snow,
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;
and ghastly was each face,
"We shall leave this fearful place,
this camp unto the demons does belong,
Ere the dawning of the day
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
Whoops the stoutest hearts to thrill,
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,
prayed that He those sounds should not perlong
That those fearful sounds
And the region rest in peace
Where the dark and deep
Dungarvon sweeps along.
Since that day the sounds have
And the region is released
From those most unearthly whoops an
screams and yells,
All around the Whooper's spring
There is heard no
And round the Whooper's grave sweet silence dwells
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,
people dwell in peace,
Where the dark and deep Dungarvon sweeps
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."
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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