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JOAN SULLIVAN: Jarvis shares tales of the odd, the eerie, the illegal and the stunned

“On This Day: 365 Tales of History, Mystery, and More,” by Dale Jarvis; Flanker Press; $19.95; 264 pages. — Contributed
“On This Day: 365 Tales of History, Mystery, and More,” by Dale Jarvis; Flanker Press; $19.95; 264 pages. — Contributed

As advertised, Dale Jarvis’s compilation offers one tale sourced by each calendar day.

Its pages sport a full miscellaneous spectrum of the odd, the eerie, the illegal and the stunned. Entries are introduced by a date, headline, and place and year of occurrence. The time ranges from the earliest historical records to close to present day. Most stories are brief, running from a paragraph to a page.

You know the saying, “you had to invent your own fun”? Well, people back in the day were certainly resourceful. They attended Magic Lantern lectures, bought tickets to Serpentine Dancing performances, and patronized the Skittles Alley.

Or take this: “February 14/A Weighing Party – St. John’s, 1899” when a “gay time” was had at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Hall, with 200 in attendance for “an entertainment unique, unprecedented, the ripe product of the 19th century in its last year.” Participants from the lightest single lady to the heaviest married couple, were all celebrated and awarded an appropriate prize.

You can absorb the text a day at a time if you wish, but it’s hard to stop at a single piece.

Many are quite tantalizing. For example, “March 23: Dead in the Woods – Deer Lake, 1909” explains that a dead man was found “in a disused camp of the Humber River Pulp and Lumber Company.” His body was curled up and dressed in several layers of clothing.

”You will learn of phrenology, oomancy, and showers of blood, flies, honey, and quartz. Protagonists are variously adventurous, hapless, scheming scoundrels or simply witnesses to great events – stowaways, murderers and their victims, tourists, sailors, runaway brides and the spirted winner of the 1964 “Outdoor Girl of Canada” contest, who capped that win with an even greater prize."

Authorities, including one Doctor Fisher, were called to the scene, and the body was examined and removed for burial. “In the man’s pockets were found astronomical drawings and plans for airships, as well as imaginative descriptions of planets and 'crazy philosophical dissertations on the relations between humanity and the heavenly bodies.’

"Another paper bore a crude likeness of himself drawn with indelible pencil and the name 'Jas. R. Millere' written beneath the portrait. There was also a post office receipt, issued at Summerside, P.E.I., indicating the deceased had sent a registered letter to the Duke of Orleans in Paris. In his pockets were found a few crumbs of bread and a package of dates.”

A registered letter to the Duke of Orleans! Who on Earth was this dude? No one was able to find out; he was interred at the Catholic cemetery in Birchy Cove.

Other narratives report abandoned boats, lights (St. Elmo’s Fire, UFOs) in the sky, and, from “Central Newfoundland – 2013,” “Strange Holes” in Dawe’s and Powderhorn lakes (meteors from above? methane gas from below?).

There are socks knitted for First World War soldiers, stolen seal flippers and other purloined items, and the 1903 introduction of Newfoundland’s first “horseless wagon.” You will learn of phrenology, oomancy, and showers of blood, flies, honey, and quartz. Protagonists are variously adventurous, hapless, scheming scoundrels or simply witnesses to great events – stowaways, murderers and their victims, tourists, sailors, runaway brides and the spirted winner of the 1964 “Outdoor Girl of Canada” contest, who capped that win with an even greater prize."

Jarvis includes a full chapter listing at the front, and a bibliography. Some of these historical footnote people are worth a novel in their own right: “August 31: France and Belgium 1916” – “It was announced that Miss Armine Gosling, daughter of St. John’s Mayor W. G. Gosling and the noted suffragette Armine Gosling, had offered her services to the war effort as an ambulance driver. She spent every afternoon at a garage to familiarize herself with the working of the automobile until she could take a machine apart and repair broken parts as ‘quickly as any man.’ Miss Gosling served in Belgium and France with the British Army’s Voluntary Aid detachment, broke her arm in an accident with her ambulance, narrowly escaped her hospital being bombed by the Germans, married a soldier (Captain Denis Keegan), was a championship golfer, moved to Bermuda, wrote a three-act comedy, and went to her heavenly reward at the respectable age of 86.”

Then there’s “October 1: Best Late Excuse Ever – St. John’s, 1880,” whereupon one Nathaniel Ebbs sued James Hickey for holding back $44 in wages. Hickey said Ebbs had missed 13 days of work without permission; “Ebbs contended that he had left his home two hours before dawn for the purpose of going to work and that all he remembered was seeing a funeral procession. At this point, Ebbs claimed, he lost his senses and was carried away by the fairies. A witness testified he had discovered Ebbs three days afterwards, lying speechless on the ground. Hickey did not deny that his employee had been carried off by the fairies, but he argued that the lost time should be made up nonetheless.” Decision, plaintiff.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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