About 10 years ago, I went looking for a ghost story from the town of St. Vincent’s, on the southern part of the Avalon Peninsula, for a local publication. Bride Martin, who was then the chairman of the Fishermen’s Museum in St. Vincent’s, faxed me a copy of a handwritten manuscript from the museum’s collections which included a number of strange stories.
One was the story of a horse whose mane and tail was braided by the fairies; another story was about the ghost of a man who would weigh down passing horses so much that they were forced to stop.
I wrote the article, and then filed away the fax, and forgot about the collection of stories altogether.
Recently, some searching through my files brought the decade-old fax to life. There, in the collection, was a story I had never written up, a story which sounded eerily familiar. The story in the manuscript was entitled “A Token (forewarning) of Death.”
“Years ago, when the time came for sick people to die, they usually died at home,” starts the unknown author. “It was customary to stay up all night with the sick person in case death occurred. Most residents in the community took turns staying up with the family.”
It was during one of those occasions, where a local man was expected to die soon, that a social or time was held in the hall.
The time had started around at 7:30 p.m. and was over at midnight sharp.
A young couple spent an enjoyable evening at the hall, and were back home in bed by 12:30. No sooner was the young couple asleep, when the wife was awakened by a noise. She asked her husband if he had heard it as well.
“The noise sounded like someone was hauling something over the house,” her husband said.
The wife agreed, and became very scared. A little later, she heard what she described as a drop, “as if 10 men dropped lumber onto the ground.”
She also heard people hammering, a noise which persisted until around 3:30 a.m.
The husband decided to check things out.
He went outside, but he could not see anything going on.
The couple lived with the young man’s father, who acted as undertaker when anyone died.
The wife went to wake her father-in-law, but found out that he had gone to stay up with the dying man.
A few days later, the dying man passed away. In those days, there were no store-bought caskets, and so a few residents of the community built a wooden coffin, and the father-in-law fulfilled his role as undertaker.
“To this day,” says the report, “this woman believed that what she had heard was real, and all the hammering and lumber noise was a token to let them know that the sick man was about to die.”
What was strange was that in the years between getting the fax and re-reading it, I had heard virtually the same story.
In September 2006, I had interviewed Mr. Gerald Quinto of Red Cliff, Bonavista Bay, about various things, including the John Quinton Ltd. Fish Store, and the making of red ochre paint.
After the interview, over a cup of tea, Mr. Quinton had told me a
story about how coffins used to be made by hand, and how the family shop had sold hardware such as handles for the sides of the coffins.
He then told me of an old story about a coffin maker, whose name I now sadly forget, who would know someone was close to death, and that it was time to make a coffin, because he would hear the sound of hammering and banging, as if the coffin was making itself.
Ghostly coffin-making noises have been heard as far away as Wales, where they also signify that someone is about to die.
If anyone else has heard this piece of folklore from other parts of Newfoundland, I would love to hear more!
What I don’t want to hear is hammering from my basement.
Dale Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.