Headless ghosts seem to pop up fairly regularly in the folklore of Newfoundland and Labrador. Kelly’s Island in Conception Bay, Hebron along Labrador’s north coast, and Queen’s Road in downtown St. John’s all claim a headless phantom.
Signal Hill even has two: one of a local farmer, and the other of a murdered pirate.
But perhaps only Swan Island can boast of having a phantom head, body not included.
Swan Island is an abandoned fishing community located in the Bay of Exploits, approximately five kilometres south-southeast of Exploits Harbour.
The community was settled in part because it provided a sheltered anchorage for ships, formed by the southern side of Swan Island, Little Berry Island and Long Island.
In early documents, the island itself appears as Swan Harbour Island.
It has been suggested that the harbour takes its name from a ship. As the swan is an uncommon Newfoundland bird, there may be some truth to this idea.
European settlement started in the 1880s, though there was a Beothuk burial ground near Swan Harbour which indicates earlier use. According to the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, virtually all the early settlers at Swan Island were named Wells or had married into the Wells family. The inhabitants fished for cod, herring and salmon or went to the Labrador fishery, though lobster may have been the most important catch for the earliest European settlers. Swan Island was largely abandoned by 1948.
Today, one family lives there seasonally, and the place has attracted a few strange stories. People have reported hearing the noises of boats in the harbour when there were no boats to be seen. Others have reported a strange sound, almost like the noise made by chainsaws.
One visitor who brought a dog to the island found that the animal was unnerved by some invisible presence, and discovered that the hound was too nervous to sleep whilst visiting the area.
The most dramatic story from Swan Island involves a group of kayakers who stopped there while exploring the Bay of Exploits. The paddlers chanced upon an unused old cabin, and decided to sleep there for the night. After a long day on the water, the group settled into their sleeping bags in different rooms of the abandoned structure, and soon fell asleep.
One member of the expedition woke up in the middle of the night and was terrified by the gory sight that awaited him.
He looked down at his sleeping bag and found it to be drenched in what looked like blood. Worse than that, a decapitated head lay grinning at him from its spot close to his feet.
With a scream, the man quickly extricated himself from the sleeping bag, and hurried to wake his companions.
When they gathered back at the spot where their friend had been resting, they found nothing. The blood and the head had vanished, leaving no trace.
Convinced that he had not been dreaming, the kayaker stayed awake for the rest of the night.
When dawn broke over the horizon, the friends quickly packed up their gear, stowed it in their kayaks, and departed Swan Island. Chances are that they were in no hurry to return.
If the story sounds familiar to anyone out there, please let me know.
Author and storyteller Dale Jarvis can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.