Hellhounds in Canada
From the moors of Devon to the Fens of Lincolnshire, rural areas across old England, according to regional folklore, are said to be haunted by a mysterious preternatural canine, most often described as an immense black dog with glowing red eyes. Variously referred to as the Barghest, Hairy Jack, or the Black Shuck, depending on the county in which it is seen, this furry phantom is almost universally regarded as a sinister entity, considered to be a hellhound, or servant of the Devil; some sort of malevolent shapeshifting fairy; or an omen of death. The beast is most often seen prowling medieval ruins, ancient burial grounds, lonely highways, and places of execution.
One famous historical sighting of the stygian spectre took place on Sunday, August 4th, 1577, in the quaint market town of Bungay, Suffolk, near the eastern end of the Anglian Peninsula. According to English clergyman Abraham Fleming, who recorded the incident in his 1577 book A Strange and Terrible Wunder…, the apparition materialized at the height of an unusually violent lightning storm somewhere between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m., while the pious residents of Bungay were gathered at the local St. Mary’s Church for divine service and common prayer. In the middle of the service, while the church shook with the force of the tempest, a flash of fire erupted in the middle of the nave, out of which sprang a ferocious black dog. Many members of the congregation were convinced that Judgement Day had arrived.
“This black dog,” Fleming wrote, if we convert his prose to modern English, “or the devil in such a likeness… running all along down the body of the church with great swiftness, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling upon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them both at one instant clean backward, insomuch that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangely died…
“There was at the same time another wonder wrought: for the same black dog, still continuing and remaining in one and the selfsame shape, passing by another man of the congregation in the church, gave him such a gripe on the back, that therewithal he was presently drawn together and shrunk up, as it were a piece of leather scorched in a hot fire; or as the mouth of a purse or bag, drawn together by a string. The man, albeit he was in so strange a taking, died not, but as it is thought is yet alive…”
Fleming went on to explain how the black dog, after leaving claw marks gouged into the very stone of the church as evidence of its rampage, later made an appearance at Holy Trinity Church in the village of Blythburgh, about 13 miles away. The creature materialized atop the church’s rood beam, an ornately-carved horizontal timber separating the altar from the nave, which, despite the crown-sanctioned iconoclasm of 1547, still supported a large crucifix. It bounded down into the nave and killed two men and a boy. It also burned the hand of another parishioner, and knocked down many more.
“This mischief thus wrought,” Fleming concluded, “he flew with wonderful force to no little fear of the assembly, out of the church in a hideous and hellish likeness.”
Black Dog Stories from Nova Scotia
Stories of mysterious black dogs with paranormal qualities are not exclusive to the British Isles, but also appear in Canadian folklore, particularly in the traditions of the Anglo-Celtic inhabitants of the Maritime Provinces. Unlike the infernal red-eyed canines of English folklore, which have a strong association with the diabolical, the black dogs of Atlantic Canadian folklore are usually perceived as the manifestations of human ghosts.
Folklorist Helen Creighton included several old black dog stories in her 1957 book Bluenose Ghosts, all of them set in the province of Nova Scotia. Her first story is the account of two boys from the community of Seabright, located on St. Margaret’s Bay north of Peggy’s Cove, at the western end of the Chebucto Peninsula opposite Halifax. One still night at around midnight, the boys were walking down a railroad east of town when they encountered a large black dog they had never seen before, standing in the middle of the tracks. Nearby was a culvert that passed beneath the tracks, where a man had shot himself to death some years before. Idly wondering who the animal belonged to, the boys brushed past it. As they did so, they both felt a sudden unaccountable rush of wind. Creighton implied that the boys ever after believed that the black dog was the spirit of the suicide.
Creighton heard her next black dog story from a man named Reuben Smith, who lived in the community of Blanche near the southern tip of Nova Scotia. Blanche is connected with the northerly settlement of Port Clyde by a 15 kilometre (9 mile) road. Roughly halfway between the two settlements is a community called Cape Negro, renamed Eel Bay in February 2023, and at the edge of this community was a little bridge over which the old road passed. This bridge was said to be guarded by a black ghost dog, which menaced travelers who attempted to cross the bridge at night.
Smith’s grandfather, Ross, believed he had encountered the ghost dog years earlier, while walking from Blanche to Port Clyde dressed in his best suit – the one he had worn on his wedding day. After passing an old house near the bridge, the black dog appeared, standing defiantly in the middle of the road. When Ross attempted to edge by, the dog attacked him and tore his clothes to ribbons. He saw the same animal a second time while driving his horse and wagon one dark and dismal day past a forested area which Smith referred to as Ely’s woods. “It didn’t stop him,” he said, “but it bothered him, and he never knew what to make of it either.”
Other ghostly black dogs were said to haunt the community of Scotsburn at the northern end of Nova Scotia; Parr’s Hill in the community of Victoria Beach, on the Bay of Fundy, not far from the historic settlement of Annapolis Royal; in the Birch Cove district of Bedford, just northwest of Halifax; and in a house in the village of Elgin, New Brunswick, located at a historic crossroads.
One of the last and most sensational black dog stories in Bluenose Ghosts is the tale of John Obe Smith, an elderly man from Glen Haven, just north of Seabright. “I seen something over here one night coming home,” Smith told Creighton. “I seen a big black dog coming towards me and his eyes as big as two fists. I went to fire at him and the rock went right through him. I threw another one then and it disappeared altogether. By this time I was pretty scared and I was only young anyhow so I took to me heels and ran. There was supposed to be somebody killed by an Indian years before and this was its ghost. Lots of people saw it about seventy-five or eighty years ago.”
The Black Dog of Antigonish Harbour
Although most black dog stories from Nova Scotia portray their shaggy subjects as the manifestations of human spirits, there are at least two such tales from that province which have the same diabolical overtones as their older English cousins. One of these tales appears in folklorist Mary Fraser’s 1932 book Folklore of Nova Scotia.
“The old people,” Fraser began, “believed that the devil often assumed a bodily shape, sometimes that of a man, oftener that of an animal, in order to do his work more effectively. There are many stories to illustrate this belief…”
Fraser went on to explain how, at Antigonish Harbour, on the northern shores of the Nova Scotian peninsula, there once lived a man who was overly fond of the bottle. One day, this man travelled on horseback to the southerly town of Antigonish, accompanied by his friend, Dan. The treacherous bridle path along which they travelled passed over the North River Hill, “amid whose rough tree-clad slopes,” Fraser wrote, “ghosts loved to wander when night closed in.” Fortunately, the travellers reached their destination before such spectres were astir, riding into Antigonish just before evening. There, they parted ways, promising to meet up the following afternoon so that they might accompany each other on the return journey.
When Dan and his bacchanalian companion failed to return to Antigonish Harbour by evening the following day, Dan’s mother grew uneasy. “Something must have happened to them,” Fraser wrote. “The horses might be frightened by ‘things’ on North River Hill – then there was Paddy’s Hollow, where they said more than one strange sight was seen, and it was very near the burying ground besides.” Fearful that the travellers might have had a run-in with one of the phantoms of the trail, Dan’s mother asked her nephew, Alex, to look for them.
Alex found the travellers with little difficulty and ascertained the reason for their delay as soon as he set eyes on them. Before leaving town, Dan’s companion had indulged his appetite for rum, and was now in dreadful shape, and could hardly stay on his horse. Incidentally, they had also picked up a third unwanted travelling companion along the way – a large black dog which lurked in the darkness behind them. Although Dan and Alex tried to drive the animal away, it obstinately refused to leave them, trotting at their horse’s heels like a hairy black shadow.
Loathe to bring the drunk man back to the home of his poor widowed mother, the travellers took him to the home of Alex’s parents, making sure that the black dog remained outside as they quietly stole in through the back door. “What was their horror,” Fraser wrote, “to see that, notwithstanding their precautions, the big black dog had passed through the closed doors. Upstairs he came, making for the room where the man lay. But in a room at the head of the stairs, Alex’s two little sisters were sleeping, and the dog could not pass their door.
“All night that dog went up and down the stairs, and Alex knelt at the bed-side of the drunken man and prayed that he might be spared, for death seemed imminent. His prayer was heard. In the morning the dog disappeared and the man came to his senses. His friends told him of the terrible night they had spent and of the great danger he had run. He was so much affected thereby that he reformed completely and died a good death some years later. (Story told by the niece of Alex… He himself told it to her.”
The Black Dog of Oak Island
Another demonic black dog is said to haunt Nova Scotia’s famous Oak Island, the site of Canada’s longest-running treasure hunt. Legend says that in 1795, three local boys found a large circular depression in a clearing in the trees on the island’s eastern end. Overtop of the depression, known thereafter as the Money Pit, stretched the strong arm of an oak tree, from which depended a rotting block and tackle. Having grown up on tales of Captain Kidd’s legendary buried treasure, the boys began to dig, touching off a search for a mysterious treasure that has cost millions of dollars, directly claimed six lives, and lasted nearly 230 years. Although Oak Island’s many treasure hunters have not yet, as of the penning of this piece, recovered the hoped-for motherlode supposed to lie beneath the surface, they have uncovered, among other things, a supposed booby trap, quantities of coconut fibre, pieces of parchment, a large flat stone inscribed with strange symbols, and fragments of human bone carbon dated to the late 17th Century, all buried deep beneath the surface.
In addition to its enigmatic treasure, Oak Island is said to be a hotspot for unexplained phenomena. Throughout the centuries, treasure hunters have reported an inordinate amount of equipment malfunctions on the island, many of them involving mysterious surges of electromagnetic activity. Ghostly figures, phantom lights, and balls of fire have been seen on the island, and bloodcurdling shrieks have been heard emanating from the island’s triangular swamp at night.
One of the island’s eeriest spectral residents is a ghostly black dog with fiery eyes, which writer D’Arcy O’Connor referenced in his 1978 classic, The Secret Treasure of Oak Island. “According to some,” O’Connor wrote, “this creature with bloodred eyes that glow like hot coals is nothing less than Satan’s own watchdog. Others contend that it is the ghost of a ship’s mascot left behind by the original depositors. Hannah Dauphinee, who lived on the island in the early 1930’s, claimed to have seen it several times lurking around Smith’s Cove. Another woman, a relative of [island resident] Anthony Graves, once was startled by a dog ‘as big as a colt,’ which ‘disappeared into a wall’ of solid stone on the north side of the island.”
“Harris Joudrey, who lived into his nineties at Martin’s Point on the mainland, spent the first ten years of his life on Oak Island. Some years ago, he told me that he saw the dog in the summer of 1900 when he was nine years old. As Joudrey recalled it, he and a couple of his friends were walking past the Money Pit one evening and ‘there was a dog sitting at the sill of the boilerhouse. He watched us till we were out of sight. It was a pretty big dog with some black and white on him, and we knew there was no such dog on the island. He was never seen before and we never saw it again after that. We were scared, I tell you.’”
Joudrey’s description of a large dog with black and white fur, incidentally, evokes a black Belgian shepherd named Carney, which lived on the island in the 1960s. Carney belonged to the Restalls, a family of treasure hunters whose Oak Island tenure ended in disaster when father Robert and son Bobby Jr. drowned in a water-filled shaft, apparently having been knocked unconscious by subterranean hydrogen sulfide gas.
On the subject of the ghost dog of Oak Island and Robert and Bobby Restall’s somewhat mysterious deaths, it is perhaps worth mentioning the disturbing experience of Jimmy Kaizer, the daring Mi’kmaq labourer who retrieved the Restalls’ bodies from the shaft. In late 1965, about four months after the tragedy, while dozing in the Restalls’ old shack on Oak Island, Kaizer’s sleep was interrupted by the sensation of suffocation. According to his son, Faron, who told the story to journalist Randall Sullivan, who, in turn, published Faron’s statement in his 2018 book The Curse of Oak Island:
“Dad said it was about eleven or twelve o’clock. He said, ‘I had a little fire goin’. I put some wood on the fire and then I lay down on the cot and closed my eyes.’ And apparently he fell asleep. And he said, ‘I woke up and I couldn’t breathe.’ And he said there was two of the biggest red eyes you would ever want to see looking right into his. And the whole body was covered with hair, tight and curly black hair. He said that was all he could see, because the… whatever it was, was holdin’ him down by his arms and had him pinned so tight he couldn’t move. But then it smiled at him and said, ‘Don’t ever come back.’ My dad said when it let him go and disappeared the whole building shook.”
According to Season 4, Episode 3 of the TV series Drilling Down, a companion to the more famous History Channel series The Curse of Oak Island, which chronicles the ongoing Oak Island treasure hunt, the following morning, Kaizer found that he was covered in bruises, one pattern resembling four fingers and a thumb.
The Black Stag of Newfoundland
The island of Newfoundland, the harshest and northernmost of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, has a few black dog legends of his own. In his 2017 book Haunted Ground: Ghost Stories from the Rock, for example, writer Dale Jarvis refers to a black dog which is said to haunt Coley’s Point near the ancient town of Bay Roberts, on Conception Bay, on the northern finger of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. This canine phantom is believed to be connected with a deadly shipwreck that occurred off Coley’s Point long ago, and is said to appear at the same time of day at which the tragedy took place, but only when the weather evokes the stormy conditions which drove the ship to its untimely end.
In his 2010 book Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador, writer Edward Butts included a variation of the black dog legend set in the fishing town of St. Bride’s, formerly known as Distress, located at the southwestern end of the Avalon Peninsula. In 1804, a strong young man named Thomas, who had a reputation as an excellent hunter, set out from that place to visit his father, who lived in the village of Point Lance, located a few miles to the southeast. As was his custom, he kept his musket beside him in his horse-drawn cart, loaded and primed, just in case he encountered game along the way.
“About halfway to Point Lance,” Butts wrote, “Thomas spotted a big, black stag in front of him. He quickly grabbed his gun and fired. Thomas was a crack shot, but to his astonishment, the bullet had no effect on the stag. He reloaded and fired again. The animal stood unmoved. In frustration, Thomas loaded his gun with a double charge, and blasted at the stag once more. He couldn’t have missed! But to his amazement, the stag was unharmed.”
Fearing that there was something uncanny about this invincible black animal, Thomas swung back into his cart and drove to Point Lance as fast as his pony would take him. There, he described his disturbing experience to his father and some of his friends. Instead of sharing his misgivings, the older men simply laughed at him, advising him to spend more time at target practice.
Thomas left Point Lance that afternoon and headed for home, his fears perhaps assuaged by his father’s unconcern. Several hours later, his pony dashed up to his house, cartless, riderless, and thoroughly spooked. Alarmed, his neighbours formed a search party and set out to look for him. They found Thomas dead on the road between Distress and Lance Point, his face covered with gunpowder which had been dumped out of his own powder horn. “But there was no mark of violence on his body,” Butts wrote. “It was never discovered who – or what – had killed him.”
Butts then related how Thomas’s wife, brother, and friend met the same mysterious fate shortly thereafter, while on their way to a baptism. “Their bodies were found in the same place where Thomas had died,” Butts wrote. “Tracks in the dirt indicated that they had run around in blind terror. But whatever had killed them did not leave a trace. The mystery has never been solved.”
The Giant Ghost Dog of Greysir Settlement
The last story we will explore in this piece is not a legend of the Canadian Maritimes, but rather one of the Icelandic-Canadian oral narratives recorded by folklorist Magnus Einarsson in his 1991 book of the same name. In the mid-late 1960s, Einarsson travelled throughout the prairies west of Lake Winnipeg, in a region known as New Iceland for its large population of Icelandic-Canadians, for the purpose of collecting old folktales. One of the oldtimers he visited with was a retired farmer and fisherman named Edward Gislason, who lived in a farmhouse near town of Arborg, Manitoba.
Gislason told Einarsson that one of his friends, many years before, had an unusual experience while working for a farmer in the Geysir Settlement, between Arborg and the rural community of Riverton.
“He said he had stepped outside one evening,” Gislason explained, “and he said it had been especially bright and cloudless, and then he sees a very large dog standing there. He said he had, probably, been fourteen feet high, and he described him for me very precisely. It was large and black and curly, a very beautiful dog. So I asked him whether he had… mentioned this when he came back inside, to the people.
“‘No,’ he said he had known that there was no point in mentioning this, that they wouldn’t have believed him. But, at first, he said he hadn’t understood this at all, but then the farmer told him that… he had shot at one time, an extremely large dog from out the window and that it was, exactly, in the area where he saw this… dog.”
A Straunge and Terrible Wunder wrought very late in the Parish Church of Bongay: The fourth of this August 1577, in a great tempest of violent raine, lightning, and thunder: With the appearance of a horrible-shaped Thing, sensibly perceived of the people then and there assembled (1577), by Abraham Fleming
Bluenose Ghosts (1957), by Helen Creighton
Folklore of Nova Scotia (1932), by Mary Fraser
Ghost Stories of Newfoundland and Labrador (2010), by Edward Butts
The Secret Treasure of Oak Island (1978), by D’Arcy O’Connor
Haunted Ground: Ghost Stories from the Rock (2017), by Dale Jarvis
Icelandic-Canadian Oral Narratives (1991), by Magnus Einarsson
The Curse of Oak Island: The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt (2018), by Randall Sullivan
The Curse of Oak Island: Drilling Down, Season 4, Episode 3, “The Truth Behind the Curse” (February 2019)