Over the past few weeks, we have heard a lot about the 100th anniversary of the great Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914. Several new books on the subject have been released, services held, movies screened, and other memorializations planned. It is an important story in our collective consciousness, one which still resonates to this day.
At one point last week, I heard a woman talking about the disaster, and about how one of her relatives knew, instinctively, that her husband had been lost, long before she received official word of his passing. It was a perfect example of what we call in Newfoundland a “token” story, where someone has some sort of warning or premonition that someone close to them is about to die, or has just died. In many cases, these stories are quite touching, and show the strong emotional ties between loved ones.
The Newfoundland sealing disaster is such an important part of our literary and oral traditions in the province that it is unsurprising that a number of supernatural tales have attached themselves to the disaster. I suspect the token story that I heard is just one of many told by the descendants of the men who were lost on the ice, or in the wreck of the Southern Cross.
The most dramatic token story I have come across with regards to the disaster is part of a series of stories told about a ghostly black barquentine, reportedly seen sailing into St. John’s harbour. The ship is immense, with three towering masts, square-rigged sails on the foremost, and a huge, grotesque gargoyle for a figurehead. As frightening as the ship’s appearance is, it is made far worse by the fact that it is always a token, an omen of a forthcoming disaster. Stories are told of the ship appearing in conjunction with notable disasters, including the Great St. John’s Fire of 1892, the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, and the sealing disaster. According to local legend, the barque was seen sailing in through the Narrows at the same time as the crew of the SS Newfoundland was stranded for two days on the ice in blizzard conditions.
I have written before of a different supernatural warning story associated with the loss of the Southern Cross. Shirley Ryan, of Birchy Cove, told me in 2013 of story concerning two men, Edmund Ryan and Leonard Skiffington, who left Birchy Cove to go across to Catalina to get a berth on the Southern Cross.
“They had their berth already promised,” says Ryan. “They went into what he used to call a tavern. I’ve never known a tavern to be there, but maybe in them days there was. They went into this tavern to get a drink. Water was all they could afford. They had no money. So they asked the woman there for a glass of water each, and she gave them the water.”
“Where are you going?” the woman asked.
“We are going on the Southern Cross. We have a berth on the Southern Cross.”
“If you’re wise, you won’t go on that journey,” the woman said, “because you won’t return.”
“Now he was a man of great superstitions, and he took what she said to heart, and he came home,” describes Ryan. “But his friend Leonard wouldn’t listen to him and he went on that ship.”
Returning from the seal hunt in the final days of March, 1914, the Southern Cross fell out of normal communication. She was last heard of off Cape Pine, and then nothing. The Southern Cross vanished at sea, along with the 174 sailors and sealers onboard.
I believe that ghost stories can arise from the incomprehensibility of tragedy. Disasters on a large scale, such as the sealing disasters of 1914 where multiple lives are lost at once, are harder to understand than an individual death. It is difficult to comprehend why such an event would happen.
Associating the event with a supernatural story makes the event larger than life, more momentous, and places the story outside of the regular occurrences of daily life. When a historical story is linked to a supernatural experience, that story is much more “tellable” and gives it a greater chance to be kept alive in an oral tradition.
If you know a supernatural story of a
warning, a token, or a ghostly visitation associated with the sealing disaster of 1914, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.