Was This Madame La Tour's Ghost?

by Stuart Trueman

Meeting of Lady La Tour and Sieur d'Aulnay by C.W. Jeffreys.    In all of Canada's beginning history there is no more heroic -nor more poignant-chapter than Madame la Tour's defence of her husband's fort.

    Francoise Marie Jacquelin had two careers. She was a scintillating actress in France, the toast of the aristocratic Parisian stage-door set. When she feared at thirty-eight her youthful radiance was waning, because she wasn't getting the choicest lead roles, she accepted a marriage proposal by proxy and sailed over the seas to become the bride of a French seigneur and fur trader in Acadia, Charles St. Etienne de la Tour. His pallisaded wooden stronghold was at the mouth of the St. John River.

    La Tour's arch-competitor was Sieur d'Aulnay Charnisay across the Bay of Fundy. Their rivalry escalated into outright war, one of the few instances in New World history where French fought French-raids, reprisal raids, ambushes, pursuits, blockades, furtive midnight escapes, desperate appeals from both sides to Versailles for help.

    Through these drama-filled scenes moved the dynamic and oft imperious personality of Madame la Tour-demanding, insisting, daring, improvising, brushing aside protocol, refusing to be dominated for long. It's easy to imagine the pent-up fury she felt when, after one of her trans-Atlantic voyages to England in quest of aid-a trip made under threat from Versailles of execution if she left French soil-she sailed homeward with six months' supplies on a chartered ship, only to discover that Captain Bayley was blandly scorning her instructions. Instead of proceeding directly to the Bay of Fundy, he made a leisurely passage up the St. Lawrence River, bartering with the Indians. Nor later could she do anything but keep vehemently silent with her maids in the depths of the vessel's hold when Charnisay's patrol vessels halted Captain Bayley at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. The master asserted he knew nothing of Madame la Tour- he was only a law-abiding trading ship heading for Boston.

   Was she properly grateful and submissive when he reached Boston? Not Madame la Tour. Raging, she stormed ashore, sued the captain for violating his charter, and was awarded E2,000 by an English colonial jury after a four-day trial. Immediately she chartered three New England vessels with food and armaments- and boldly penetrated the Charnisay blockade to sail into St. John harbour to a gala welcome.

   But the event for which Madame la Tour is indelibly remembered was her gallant stand against heavy odds in the climactic siege of the St. John harbour fort, when her husband was away seeking more aid from Boston. It was a stand that held rock-firm until the fourth day when the attackers bribed a Swiss guard to let them scale the walls.

    Although Charnisay at the last moment promised the lives of the fifty defenders would be spared if they laid down their arms, he promptly hanged the garrison-every man but one weak-spined soldier who agreed to hoist his fellows at the end of a rope. Obviously seething with hate, Charnisay forced Madame la Tour to watch the grisly proceedings with a noose around her neck.

    What made Charnisay so diabolical? Perhaps it was that this attack cost his force twelve men killed and many wounded-on top of the fact that in an abortive assault two months previously he was repulsed by Madame la Tour with the loss of twenty killed and thirteen wounded and his own ship was nearly sunk. (This incidentally was the most sanguinary of all the 100 battles in New Brunswick's recorded history-and the victor was a lady who, though she didn't know it, was far in advance of Women's Lib.)

    Such humiliations would be doubly noxious to a vain man like Charnisay. They may account for why he brushed off his veneer of chivalry and gloated over the heartpangs of his prize captive as she saw her faithful retainers, one by one, swinging in the Fundy breeze.

    She died within three weeks-of a broken heart, her admirers said; of the overexerted fury of a temperamental actress, her detractors said; of poisoning administered by Charnisay, the realistic English Bostonians said.

    Fort la Tour itself was razed. Its location was lost in the fogs of history. With it, unfortunately, disappeared any knowledge of the resting place of Madame la Tour, who has often been called "Canada's unknown heroine." She is believed to be buried near the fort site.

   Throughout 1898 two prominent historians, Dr. W.F. Ganong and James Hannay, waged a polite and scholarly but bitter debate in the public prints of New Brunswick. Dr. Ganong cited old maps and quoted Nicholas Denys' early descriptive writings to prove Fort la Tour was "behind Navy Island" on the east side of the harbour. Mr. Hanny did the same to prove it was "behind Navy Island" on the west side of the harbour. "They continue relentlessly to argue the exact meaning of the old English word 'behind'," a contemporary account straight-facedly said.

   Mrs. Huia Ryder, an authority on New Brunswick furniture who is also an historian, recalls an old West Side man who claimed he had incontrovertible proof Madame la Tour was buried on his side of the harbour and so the fort must have been there too.

    "I've seen her ghost walking any number of times around the foot of my garden, on the point of property leading down toward where Navy Island once stood," he told Mrs. Ryder in the 1950s. "She wears an old-fashioned grey gown, and is quite a familiar sight to my family."

    On the other hand, historical researchers in recent years excavating on the east side of the harbour have unearthed ancient wall foundations and chimney bases and artifacts which convinced them Fort la Tour was there, in the shadow of today's great curvaceous harbour bridge.

    Meanwhile the whereabouts of Madame la Tour herself is still a mystery.

    Just possibly, however, significant clues have come to light.

    Mrs. Ryder relates a strange story which she heard around the year 1965, but which cannot now be verified by its original source.

    It concerns a respected Saint John merchant, a man we both knew, who died a few years ago.

    "He told me, on the promise I wouldn't disclose it while he lived, that an aged man came into his store and offered to show him the coffin of Madame la Tour if he would observe utter secrecy."

    The merchant agreed, and the old man took him in a taxi over to Main Street, just above Portland Point.

    Then, though it was pitch-dark, the old man insisted on blindfolding him and led him through several streets and flnally into a house and down into a basement, where the blindfold was removed.

    "Now, just look," the old fellow said excitedly, "when I take out some of these bricks in the wall." The merchant stared as the end of a mouldering pine coffin was gradually revealed; it bore the name of Marie la Tour.

    He kept watching in disbelief as the old man pulled off the end of the coffin and reached in and drew out some human bones.

    The house had unknowingly been built right beside the ancient grave.

   That, in any event, was the story.

   When the old man was blindfolding the merchant again for the return walk to Main Street, he predicted confidently the bones would make him a fortune, though he didn't know exactly how.

    Some time later, when a huge urban renewal project was launched in the Portland Point district, the merchant again happened to meet the old man, who told him the house had been demolished.

    What did he do with the remains? Got a great big sack, he said, put the bones and the end of the coffin in it, lugged it to his new rooming house, and put the sack under his bed.

    It's possible to conjecture, then, what may have happened when the old man died: the landlady, finding a bag of bones and a piece of musty wood under the bed, would dump it into one of those dark green plastic bags, twist a tie on top and put it out at the end of the alley for the garbage man.

    But the old man's tale was not necessarily authentic, in the opinion of veteran boatmaker Grenville Ring of Millidgeville, a fourth-generation descendant of a family of United Empire Loyalist shipbuilders.

    "My father and my uncle were supervisors for James S Gregory at Portland Point when wooden ships were repaired there. There were only three houses on Acadia Street below the railway track in those days, and when the boss bought the properties he had excavations dug to put water pipelines into the houses.

   "I remember very well the day-I was about sixteenwhen we dug up an oak casket back of Acadia Street. We took the side off, and a woman with long hair was lying inside. Her clothing was quite well preserved, at least until it was exposed to the air.

    "The older men, whose memories went back to the 1840s when there were still Loyalists walking around, said they never heard of any burial ground there. So they came to the conclusion it must be the grave of Lady la Tour."

    The workmen closed the casket, shovelled the earth back in again. If they were right, Canada's early heroine may still rest today somewhere down by the river at Portland Point-"she's part of what we used to call Green Hill," comments Grenville Ring.

    He doesn't think much of that other story about the coffin being disclosed by a man taking bricks out of the cellar wall.

    "Those old North End houses were all built on posts," he points out. "They had cellars, but no brickwork."

    On the other hand, as Huia Ryder remarks, the brick wall could be a modern-day installation. Or it might have been really an old stone wall, not brick at all.

    So it's conceivable Madame la Tour's grave has been rediscovered twice on the East Side.

    In which case the ghost lady in grey, who promenades the foot of a West Side garden, must be haunting somebody else's family.

THE END