5 Spooky Canadian Urban Legends
Every town has its urban legends – those modern myths which once proliferated by way of playgrounds and backyard campfires, and now circulate via smartphones and social media. Many of these, like the legend of Cropsey, the boogeyman of Staten Island, are based on solid but only partially-understood historical fact, their more lurid details perhaps deriving from an attempt to fill the blank spaces in the public narrative. Others, like the creepypasta character Slenderman, which slithered from its cyberspace breeding ground into modern folklore, have no discernable connections to reality, apparently being nothing more than the products of imagination and credulity.
What distinguishes urban legends from proper ghost stories, monster sightings, and other accounts of the weird and the wonderful are their complete reliance on unverifiable third-hand hearsay – their quintessential derivation from the account of some nameless ‘friend of a friend.’ Unlike most tales of the unexplained, which even the most hardened skeptic would be forced to admit have undeniable roots in the historical record, urban legends are essentially fictional, partly-fictional, or unverifiable stories masquerading as fact. In this piece, we will explore five urban legends unique to the Great White North. Enjoy!
The Screaming Tunnel
Beneath the Canadian National Railroad on the northern outskirts of Niagara Falls, Ontario, in the very centre of the quiet rural strip separating that city from northwesterly St. Catherines, runs a small limestone corridor known as the Screaming Tunnel. Built in the early 1900s for drainage purposes, this dark 125-foot-long passageway, hidden away off Warner Road not far from the Queen Elizabeth Highway and the Warner Methodist Cemetery beyond, its entrance shaded by overhanging vegetation, is the perfect setting for one of Canada’s eeriest urban legends.
According to local lore, the tunnel owes its name to a tragic event which took place around the turn of the 20th Century. One night, a nearby farmhouse caught fire, and a woman or girl stumbled from the inferno, suffering from appalling burns. Her nightgown ablaze, the girl staggered into the tunnel, wailing as she walked, perhaps hoping to find help on the other side of the railroad. Before she could complete her journey, she collapsed and died in the middle of that rough-hewn underpass. Ever since, disembodied shrieks, as of a woman in agony, have been heard emanating from the tunnel at night. Legend has it that if you enter the Screaming Tunnel at midnight and light a wooden match, something will blow your match out, and a blood-chilling scream will reverberate throughout passageway.
According to an article on the website GhostWalks.com, the cyber-home of a ghost tour company which brings its patrons to the most haunted locales in southern Ontario, there is another less horrific story which purports to explain the tunnel’s naming. The article cites an anonymous Niagara historian who interviewed a nameless woman who claimed to have lived in the area at the time the tunnel was named. Years ago, the informant had an eccentric neighbour who argued frequently and loudly with her husband. Without fail, after each quarrel, this cantankerous housewife would exit her home, walk across a field, and disappear into the Screaming Tunnel.
“Couple second later,” the informant told the historian, “we all heard it. A loud scream. The first time it happened, we were scared. After a while, it felt normal. Expected. She, and I swear this, walked to the middle of the tunnel and screamed at the top of her lungs. The birds never got used to it… We started calling it the Screaming Tunnel.”
Whatever secrets it holds, that gloomy corridor on the southern arm of Ontario’s so-called ‘Golden Horseshoe’ has an intrinsic spookiness which will doubtless ensure its place in urban legend for years to come.
The Wendigo of Fort Kent
Since the early 2000s, a disturbing story about a little-known historical event has circulated throughout the shadowy corners of the internet. The tale is set in Fort Kent, a remote hunting and fishing destination in east-central Alberta not far from the Saskatchewan border, which lies at the junction of the Great Plains and the boreal forest.
According to the story, back in the 1920s, when the town of Fort Kent was rapidly dwindling into the tiny hamlet it is today, its 19th Century zenith as a vibrant logging community being little more than a fading memory, a mysterious predator took up residence in the nearby woods. Local ranchers would head to their stables in the morning to find their horses horrifically mutilated, and their cattle disemboweled in the fields. At night, they heard unearthly howls emanating from the forest behind their properties. One brave soul who ventured out into the darkness, shotgun in hand, with the intention of killing this nocturnal marauder reported seeing a dark shape with brilliantly-glowing eyes flitting through the trees.
Shortly after the appearance of this unwanted neighbour, the waning population of Fort Kent was bolstered by the arrival of two English immigrants, Dr. Thomas Burton and his wife, Katie. Dr. Burton was a physician and combat surgeon who had served in the trenches in Flanders during the Great War. His senses reeling from the carnage he had witnessed in that muddy, rat-infested world, he had decided to start a new life in the quiet Albertan countryside, where he might recoup what remained of his shattered nerves.
Dr. Burton and his wife settled easily into their new home in the Albertan wilds. They established a medical practice and began making house calls to the more far-flung residences in the area, for which the locals were eternally grateful. By all accounts, they became pillars of that tiny community, and were liked and respected by their neighbours.
Not long after arrival of Dr. and Mrs. Burton, Fort Kent was ravaged by some terrible disease which proved lethal to patients of all ages. Dr. Burton was unable to identify this mysterious malady, and despite his best efforts, found himself incapable of effecting a cure. When his wife, Katie, was stricken by the disease, he did everything in his power to restore her health, but to no avail. Her condition worsened rapidly, and within a few days she died.
Dr. Burton fell into a deep despondency after Katie’s death, and refused all requests for medical assistance, not even deigning to open his door to his desperate neighbours whose loved ones were dying in their beds. The disease continued to sweep throughout the town, and before long, nearly all living residents of Fort Kent were ill or dying.
At the height of the epidemic, one young man who had managed to avoid contagion took it upon himself to seek assistance in a nearby settlement (perhaps Bonnyville, known at the time as St. Louis de Moose Lake, or Cold Lake to the east). Several days later, he and a handful of volunteers rode into Fort Kent with a wagonload of supplies, only to find it completely devoid of activity. An eerie silence prevailed, broken only by the distant buzzing of flies. The sickly-sweet smell of death and decay hung heavily over the dirt streets.
Subsequent investigation determined that nearly every resident of Fort Kent had been brutally murdered at home. Most of the twenty-four victims were found lying in beds soaked with their own blood, as if they had been slaughtered in their sleep. Some of the bodies were partially eaten. The only townsperson unaccounted for was Dr. Thomas Burton.
Officers of the North-West Mounted Police who later investigated the scene, whose agency, incidentally, would be renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police later that year, suspected that the people of Fort Kent had been massacred by Dr. Burton. That shell-shocked physician, they believed, had lost his mind, the last fraying threads of sanity which anchored him to reality having snapped under the weight of his wife’s death. One night, when the town was asleep, the deranged surgeon emerged from his home, unkempt, unwashed, and wild-eyed. One by one, he broke into the homes of his neighbours and gave violent vent to his despair. When his grisly work was complete, he simply wandered into the woods to be swallowed by the darkness.
In the wake of the tragedy, local Cree Indians whispered that Dr. Burton had been possessed by the Wendigo, an evil cannibalistic spirit said to haunt the northern wilderness. The mysterious creature that had mutilated local cattle in the months preceding the disaster, which had been heard howling in the woods outside the village, was undoubtedly that ancient predator on the hunt for a suitable host. When Dr. Burton lost control of his senses following his wife’s death, the Wendigo infiltrated his weakened mind and took possession of his body. Then, in a vain attempt to satiate its ravenous appetite, it gorged itself on the hapless residents of Fort Kent before returning to the woods. In that sylvan sanctuary, they supposed that the body of Dr. Burton gradually metamorphosed into a gaunt grey-skinned giant – the physical manifestation of the Wendigo.
Such is the story as it was portrayed in Season 2, Episode 2 of the Canadian TV program Creepy Canada, a series which dramatized various ghost stories and the occasional monster legend native to the Great White North. This particular segment, which aired on November 4th, 2003, and from which all variations of the story derive, depicted the massacre of Fort Kent as a genuine historical event, even including a monologue by Albertan actress and model Gillian Skupa, who is credited as a historian, to lend it legitimacy.
In fact, the story is a work of fiction, created by then-29-year-old independent filmmaker Leslie Chivers, a native of Fort McMurray, Alberta, in the autumn of 2002. In a 2014 blog post on his website LeslieChiversDotCom.Wordpress.com, Chivers explained how he conceived the idea after visiting Fort Kent while on a road trip with his friend, James.
“It was one of the creepiest towns I’ve seen that was still surviving,” he wrote. “The school was abandoned, but not vandalized. The grass in the schoolyard grew to the bottoms of windows, blowing soft waves in the wind. A girl’s lone dirty shoe was turned over in the playground under a swing that rocked back and forth as though a child were still swinging in it…
“We spent the day walking through the rest of the town. Even though there were a few houses, there were no people. We were it.
“There is a story here. A scary story.”
When he returned home, Chivers began to research the history of the Fort Kent area and discovered, in his own words, that the region “had a lush history that included… Wendigo convictions.” Although he did not elaborate on which cases caught his attention, it is likely that Chivers came across the story of Swift Runner, a Plains Cree trapper who killed and ate his wife and five children in the winter of 1878, in his camp north of Edmonton, Alberta. Although the native explained his family’s disappearance by informing Father Hippolyte Leduc, a Catholic priest who headed a mission in the community of St. Albert, that his wife and children had died of starvation, his well-fed constitution led the priest to suspect that something more sinister had befallen them. Leduc relayed his suspicions to the North-West Mounted Police at nearby Fort Edmonton, who conducted a search of Swift Runner’s camp. There, they recovered the sad remains of the trapper’s family which bore unmistakable evidence of cannibalism. Swift Runner later confessed to the murders, saying that his dreams were haunted by the Wendigo – a sure sign, according to Cree tradition, that he was under the spell of that evil spirit of the north. He was tried, found guilty of murder, and hanged from the gallows at nearby Fort Saskatchewan in 1879.
In his blog post, Chivers explains how conceived the story of the Fort Kent massacre and adapted it into a feature-length screenplay called The Lost Town of Fort Kent. The screenplay’s storyline is more elaborate than the Creepy Canada condensation, including an elaborate backstory, an infestation of rats which precipitates the epidemic, and a cover-up by the RCMP. Like the Creepy Canada piece, the storyline is anachronistic, describing vibrant settler activity in the Fort Kent area stretching back into the 18th and 19th Centuries. In fact, according to the 1928 book Place-Names of Alberta, published by Canada’s Department of the Interior on behalf of the Geographic Board of Canada, Fort Kent was established in 1922, borrowing its name from Fort Kent, Maine, the hometown of one of its first residents.
Chivers went on to explain how he attempted to produce and direct the The Lost Town of Fort Kent himself, purchasing filming equipment, making casting calls, and booking filming locations. An article in the November 1st, 2002 issue of the newspaper Fort McMurray Today describes his plan to have the film distributed to local video stories – an outcome which he hoped would open doors for the cast and crew.
“Things were good until I ran out of money,” Chivers wrote. “Then things were not that good at all. A change to the story was made to make a mockumentary – a fictional story made to look like a documentary. Changing the script helped cut costs, but in the end, no more money is no more money… It ended up being a ten minute segment on Creepy Canada and was a highlight of the entire experience.”
Although the Creepy Canada segment undoubtedly attempted to deceive viewers by portraying the story as a real event, Chivers had no such designs, writing the following near the end of his post:
“While you may find other sites claim these events to be true, they are not. I made them up.”
The Monster of Thetis Lake
On August 22nd, 1972, Victoria, British Columbia’s Victoria Times published a sensational article on their fourth page under the headline “Thetis Monster Seen by Boys.” According to this piece, 16-year-old Gordon Pike and 17-year-old Robin Flewellyn of Victoria were swimming in Thetis Lake, just west of their Vancouver Island hometown, on the night of Friday, August 18th, when they were approached by a strange silvery animal in the water. A later article placed their sighting near the lake’s concession stand, which sits on the lake’s main beach. The August 22nd piece described the creature as being “roughly triangular in shape, about five feet high and five feet across the base.” The animal bit Flewellyn on the hand, administering six tiny bite marks with razor-sharp teeth, and sending the boys in a panicked flight toward the shore.
The teens returned to the lake the following evening, hoping to spot the monster a second time, and were rewarded for their efforts. In the twilight, they clearly made out the creature’s triangular figure perched on a rock bluff near the concession stand. According to a later article, they described the animal in this state as measuring 5’3” in length, being florescent grey in colour, and having three points on the top of its head.
Pike and Flewellyn decided to report their encounter to the RCMP at the Colwood department just southwest of Thetis Lake. An anonymous Mountie informed the press, “The boys seem sincere, and until we determine otherwise we have no alternative but to continue the investigation.”
The following afternoon, two more boys – 14-year-old Mike Gold and 12-year-old Russell Van Nice – also reported seeing a strange silvery animal in Thetis Lake, which rose out of the water, had a look around, and submerged again. Their initial description of the creature was significantly different and far more detailed than that of their predecessors. An article in the Vancouver Sun quoted them as saying that it was vaguely humanlike in appearance, but had a hideous face, and was covered with scales. “It had a point sticking out of his head,” said Mike Gold, “was silvery, and had great big ears.”
In the aftermath of the publications, a local man called the RCMP to inform them that the creature might, in fact, be his lost “teju” or tegu lizard, a predatory South American reptile which had disappeared from his home one year earlier. Although he had assumed the animal had perished over the winter, Pike and Flewellyn’s description of a fluorescent scaled animal with three lumps on his head was apparently an apt description of his missing pet.
In the decades following this flurry of dramatic newspaper articles, writers have put forth all sorts of theories as to the identity of the mysterious monster of Thetis Lake. In their 1999 book The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide, which outlined a proposed classification system for the various subhuman entities reported in wilderness areas throughout the world, cryptozoologists Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe placed the Thetis Lake monster in a class they called ‘Merbeing,’ which encompasses mermaids, sea apes, lizard men, and the infamous chupacabra. They divided this hypothetical monster family into two sub-classes: the marine variety and the freshwater variety, to the latter of which the Thetis Lake monster would necessarily belong. “The freshwater… subclass,” they wrote, “is characterized by an angular foot with a high instep and three pointed toes. The freshwater creatures are often found venturing onto land and are far more aggressive and dangerous, being carnivorous, than their calmer marine cousins.”
Coleman and Huyghe went on to explain how merbeings are typically shorter than than the average man, and are generally lean and wiry. “These mostly nocturnal creatures have a singson vocalization,” they wrote, “which has been reported almost universally from Eurasia to Africa.”
Coleman and Huyghe proposed a potential connection between the mysterious creature of Thetis Lake and the Tchimose, a legendary aquatic creature of Haida tradition, the Haida being a First Nation native to Haida Gwaii, or the Queen Charlotte Islands, which lie about 135 miles northwest of Vancouver Island. One of the few white men to document the legend of the Tchimose was James Gilchrist Swan, an American Indian agent who had an office in Port Townsend, Washington, which Haida travellers would frequently visit on their semi-annual trading voyages down the Pacific Coast. In his 1874 treatise on the Haida for Volume 21 of the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Swan wrote, “The Chimose or Tchimose [is] a fabulous animal supposed to drift about in the ocean like a log of wood, floating perpendicularly, and believed by the Haidahs to be very destructive to canoes or to Indians who may fall into its clutches.” Appended to the text is a stylized image of a Tchimose – the reproduction of a tattoo worn by one of Swan’s Haida visitors. This particular figure is depicted with fin-like appendages and a tahdn-skillik, or hat, which Swan wrote “indicates this animal to belong to the genii or more powerful of these mythological beings.”
In Volume One of his 2001 book Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, cryptozoologist George M. Eberhart classified the Thetis Lake monster as a specimen of ‘lizard man’, a scaly bipedal humanoid with reptilian features which has been spotted all across the United States, from the swamps of South Carolina to the deserts of southern California. Eberhart proposed five possible identities for this frightening animal, including a hairy biped like a Sasquatch; an extraterrestrial; a hoax inspired by the antagonist of the 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon; a surviving specimen of a meat-eating dinosaur called Coelophysis; and a misidentified great grey owl.
In 2009, professional skeptic Daniel Loxton, editor of the “Junior Skeptic,” a section of the Skeptic Society’s Skeptic magazine intended for children, took it upon himself to debunk the monster of Thetis Lake. Later that year, he presented his work in Volume 15, No. 2 of Skeptic in a “Junior Skeptic” article headlined “The Shocking Secret of Thetis Lake!”
Loxton’s piece opens with the sort of sneering disdain typical of the skeptical philosophy. Beside an illustrated portrait of the author, a text bubble reads:
“Hello! I’m Daniel, the Editor of Junior Skeptic. I’d like to introduce you to a creature you’ve probably never heard of: The Thetis Lake Monster!
“And, if you have heard of it – you shouldn’t have! This must be among the silliest ‘true’ monster legends ever created. But if that’s so, why is this critter included in many cryptozoology books?
“Let’s find out!”
Despite its sardonic introduction, Loxton’s piece is uncommonly well-researched, including first-hand quotes from scientists and other specialists, and pointing out small but legitimate inconsistencies between various cryptozoological commentaries on the Thetis Lake monster and the newspaper articles on which such commentaries were based. As Loxton put it:
“Monster books… give this cryptid additional details not contained in the original news articles. It seems that no cryptozoologist ever spoke to the original witnesses or read the original police reports. So, where are these details coming from?
“For example the Thetis creature is usually described with ‘webbed’ hands, each with ‘three fingers’. Neither I nor the cryptozoologists I consulted were able to find a source for these details. It seems to be a case of a story drifting over time and acquiring new embellishments in the retelling.”
In other words, the popular version of the Thetis Lake monster story has all the hallmarks of an urban legend.
Suspecting that the monster was a hoax inspired by a movie villain, Loxton “dug into the microfilm archives for Victoria newspapers” and discovered that a low-budget 1965 horror film titled The Beach Girls and the Monster, or Monster From the Surf, had been aired twice on Victoria television channels on the weekend prior to the monster sightings. The Beach Girls and the Monster features a scaly, humanoid creature resembling the titular antagonist from the more famous 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Loxton concluded his presentation with a description of his phone conversation with Russell Van Nice, the then-12-year-old boy who purportedly saw the monster with his older friend, Mike Gold, the day after Pike and Flewellyn’s sighting, whom he had managed to track down. “It was just a big lie,” Van Nice admitted. He explained that his friend, Gold, who was a habitual yarn-spinner, had come up with the idea in an effort to get some attention.
“Case closed!” Loxton proclaimed triumphantly at the end of his piece. “We finally know for a fact that the Thetis Lake fish-man was a juvenile prank. But then, the unrealistic fish-man story sounded like a prank from the beginning.
“One question remains: how did a hoax so goofy ever become part of modern monster lore?”
Although Loxton certainly debunked Gold and Van Nice’s sighting, he apparently failed to consider the likely possibility that the boys’ hoax had been inspired by Pike and Flewellyn’s report, which had been printed in the papers the previous day; which the RCMP regarded as “sincere,” and considered credible enough to investigate. Like many urban legends, the case of the monster of Thetis Lake is not quite as open-and-shut as popular perception purports. Perhaps Thetis Lake truly had a strange visitor in the summer of 1972, be it a tegu lizard, a monster of native legend, or something else entirely.
The Chilling Tale of Coughlan’s Coffin
If you’ve ever immersed yourself in a collection of regional ghost stories, you may have come across tales in which the spirits of the dead appear to have reached out from the Great Beyond, exerting some influence on our mortal plane for the purpose of ensuring the proper treatment of their earthly remains. The phantom of a woman who died in a hiking accident, for example, will attract the attention of an outdoor adventurer, pointing toward her body hidden at the bottom of a ravine before vanishing into thin air. The spirit of a murder victim buried in the masonry of some historic manor will make scratching noises from the hollow in which his bones are entombed. One tale from Northern Canada tells of the ghost of a fur trader who verbally guided his undertakers through the boreal wilderness, barking orders at the sled dogs, apparently with the aim of preserving his frozen corpse from the predations of nearby wolves. And the preserved cadaver of one of the victims of the SS Kamloops, a freighter which sank in Lake Superior in 1927, is said to approach divers who visit his watery grave.
One tale which evokes this eerie motif is that of a Victorian thespian whose corpse is said to have made a ghastly voyage of 2,000 miles to the very spot at which he hoped to be buried, almost as if guided by actor’s spirit. In this piece, we will explore the chilling tale of Coghlan’s coffin.
Canada has a long history of exporting some of its most talented actors, musicians, and performers to the more profitable United States. This tradition extends back to the days of Charles Coghlan, a classically-trained theatre actor said to have been born on Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. After studying theatre in England, Coghlan was brought to America by New York manager Augustin Daly, on whose Broadway stages he performed Shakespearean comedies and other theatrical dramas. The Victorian actor would enjoy a long and successful career in that Land of Opportunity which culminated in an 1898 performance of a play of his own composition, based on Alexandre Dumas’ French-language dramatic biography of English actor Edward Kean.
“Although he toured the world,” wrote folklorist Sterling Ramsay in his 1973 book Folklore: Prince Edward Island, “the island always remained his beloved haven.” The anonymous author of an article in the January 1962 issue of the magazine Fate elaborated on the actor’s undying love for his home province, adding, “He never forgot, nor did he allow his friends to forget, what a gypsy fortune teller once told him – that he would die in an American southern city but that eternal rest would come to him only in the place of his birth- Prince Edward Island.” This last detail is borne out by a line from his fellow thespian, Lillie Langtry, in her 1925 autobiography The Days I Knew, which identifies the gypsy as a “crystal gazer” who made the prediction while Coghlan was a young man.
On November 27th, 1899, while preparing for a performance in the island boomtown of Galveston, Texas, in the Gulf of Mexico, 55-year-old Charles Coghlan fell ill and died of heart failure in his hotel room. Contemporary newspapers indicate that he had suffered from acute gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach, for a month prior to his death, that malady perhaps being related to the alleged alcoholism he developed after his own scandalous divorce five years earlier. His body was sealed in a lead-lined coffin in preparation for future shipment to the town of Souris, Prince Edward Island, where he owned a summer home and was to be buried. When his widow expressed a desire to have his remains cremated in St. Louis, allegedly in accordance with Coghlin’s own wishes, his casket was interred in an above-ground concrete vault in Galveston’s Lake View Cemetery to await clearer instructions.
In the first days of autumn 1900, nine months after Coghlan’s death, a terrific hurricane swept up the Gulf of Mexico and descended on the city of Galveston, washing away bridges and downing telegraph poles in what was to be the deadliest natural disaster in American history. At least 6,000 Americans are believed to have perished in the storm, and the modern equivalent of about $1,070,000,000-worth of damage was incurred in the Galveston area alone.
Galveston’s Lake View Cemetery, the transient resting place of Charles Coghlan, was not spared the rapid flooding and 140-mph-winds which wreaked havoc upon the rest of the town. The damage wrought in the city’s six graveyards was described in an article in the September 20th, 1900 issue of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat:
“In the cemeteries of Galveston were vaults made of stone and brick and cement. They were little houses, with shelves or niches upon which rested the caskets… Some of the finest of these residences of the dead, as well as some of the humbler, were wrecked by the hurricane. They are ruins of wood, masonry, and metal.
“From the debris scattered about it is evident that masses of floating material from destroyed houses were carried into the cemeteries and against these vaults with such force as to crush them. The massive monuments, as well as many smaller tombstones, were overturned by the storm-made rafts. Some smaller headstones were carried many feet from their foundations. In not a few instances the timbers struck the stones with such force as to shatter them.
“Two of the Galveston cemeteries present a ghastly, wrecked appearance. Bodies buried in the ground were not disturbed except in rare instances. But several vaults were crushed in such a manner as to leave the caskets within them exposed to wind and current. Thus, it was the storm carried off some of the dead… Most of the caskets of metal have an outer covering of wood, and the force of the storm was sufficient to float them.”
Although some caskets were later found lying some distance from the shattered mausoleums in which they once reposed, others were never recovered, apparently having been swept away into the Gulf of Mexico. As reported in various contemporary newspapers, one of the missing coffins was that of Charles Coghlan, for which a thorough but fruitless search was made.
Coghlan’s fellow actor, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, recorded the bizarre sequel to this tragedy in his 1925 autobiography A Player Under Three Reigns. “The Gulf Stream,” he wrote, “bore him round Florida, up the coast about fifteen hundred miles…”
“Here…” continued Sterling Ramsay, “in the vicinity of Newfoundland… it somehow left the current and drifted aimlessly along the coast of Eastern Canada, subject to wind and wave.”
Eight years later, in October 1908, fishermen from Prince Edward Island headed out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence off the island’s northern shores. While casting their nets, they spotted a strange oblong object floating on the waves, which they promptly towed to shore. The object proved to be a coffin encrusted with barnacles and sea shells, which had evidently been adrift for many years. Hoping to identify the occupant of this grisly vessel, they pried the coffin open. Inside was the body of a middle-aged man whose name was engraved on a silver plate: Charles Francis Coughlan. The Islander had finally returned home, just as the fortune teller predicted.
Coughlan’s body was brought to the nearest village, which proved to be the very same village in which the actor had been born, and laid to rest in the churchyard, the yard of very same church in which he had been baptized. “Somehow, across the trackless sea,” concluded Sterling Ramsay, “Charles [Coghlan] had come home to stay.”
Or so the story goes. In fact, the ghastly odyssey of Coghlan’s coffin is an urban legend, first printed in Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson 1925 autobiography, and made famous by a 1927 cartoon drawn by Robert Ripley, founder of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, which first appeared in the September 15th, 1927 issue of the New York Evening Post. Ripley’s cartoon depicts a forlorn casket washed up on the beach of some maritime cove. A handwritten caption reads:
“The actor, Charles Coghlan, comes home! He died in 1897 [actually 1899] and was buried in Galveston when the tragic flood came. His coffin was washed out to sea and the Gulf Stream carried him around Florida and up the coast to Prince Edward Island – 2000 miles distant- where he was born.”
Although Charles Coghlan did own a summer home on the Fortune River just west of Souris, Prince Edward Island, at the time of his death, he was actually born in Paris, France, to parents of Irish and English extraction. His lead-lined casket, which was indeed washed out to sea by the Galveston hurricane, was reportedly discovered in January 1907, in a lonely Texan marsh about ten miles from the Lake View Cemetery, and his body later brought to New York by his family for cremation.
It must be mentioned that this more prosaic denouement to the drama of Charles Coghlan, which appeared in several newspapers, was called into question in 1927, following the publication of Ripley’s cartoon. After reading the cartoon in the New York Evening Post, Coghlan’s only daughter, actress Gertrude Coghlan Pitou of Bayside, Long Island, wrote the Post inquiring as to the source of Ripley’s extraordinary statement, stating that if she thought there could be any truth to it, she would start a search on Prince Edward Island for her father’s body. Pitou’s inquiry, of course, implies that either Coghlan’s body was not recovered in Texas and cremated in New York, or that the actor’s only daughter was unaware that such developments had taken place. Whatever the case, Robert Ripley wrote Gertrude Pitou to inform her that he had acquired his information from the biographies of Coghlan’s good friends and fellow actors, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Lillie Langtry. At Pitou’s request, the New York Evening Post then sent a cablegram to Forbes-Robertson in London inquiring as to where he got his information from. The actor, who had performed alongside Coghlan in a run of Romeo and Juliet, held in London, England’s Lyceum Theatre, a few years prior to his death, sent the following reply by radiogram:
“I distinctly remember it was given me by one in whom I had confidence. Indeed, I think two people told me the story.”
Forbes-Robertson then suggested that Pitou contact Coghlan’s old theatrical producer, George C. Tyler, who later confirmed that he, too, heard the story of Coughlan’s coffin washing up on Prince Edward Island by Fortune Bridge, not far from his former property, adding, “It has been told to me by several persons in whom I have confidence.”
To the best of this author’s knowledge, the true fate of Charles Coghlin’s body remains a mystery to this day. The romantic tale of his remains finding their way to the place of his birth is unquestionably a fabrication based on the misconception that the actor was a native of Prince Edward Island. Nevertheless, Gertrude Pitou’s ignorance of the alleged recovery of her father’s corpse outside Galveston and its subsequent cremation in New York City is strong evidence that such events never actually took place, hinting that the actor’s casket may have indeed washed up on the shores of Prince Edward Island, as some of his closest friends seem to have believed. Whatever truth lies at the heart of this this convoluted chronicle, the story of Coghlin’s coffin is an intriguing one which deserves a place among Canada’s greatest urban legends.
The Vanished Village of Angikuni Lake
Deep in the Keewatin Barrens of what is now the territory of Nunavut, amid an endless plain of tundra and muskeg, lies lonely Angikuni Lake, one of a myriad of near-identical watering holes which dot the historic homeland of the Inuit and Chippewyan Nations. Although this nondescript body of water, with its resident populations of caribou, black flies, and tundra wolves, bears no outward characteristic which might distinguish it from its many cousins, it happens to lie near the junction of two ancient trade routes which connect Hudson’s Bay with the Arctic Ocean. It also serves as the setting of one of Canada’s spookiest urban legends.
On November 25th, 1930, a disturbing article appeared in the Muncie Evening Press, a newspaper based out of the city of Muncie, Indiana. In a front page piece complete with three photos, journalist Emmett E. Kelleher, a reporter for the Newspaper Enterprise Association based out of the northern frontier city of Le Pas, Manitoba, described the mysterious disappearance of an Inuit village on the shores of northerly Angikuni Lake.
“Far up in the heart of one of the most lonely places on earth,” Kelleher began, “in the Lake Angikuni country… a whole tribe of Eskimos has vanished. Somewhere, somehow, the endless desolation of Canada’s northern Barren Lands has swallowed up to 25 men, women and children.
“It is one of the most puzzling mysteries that has ever come down out of the Arctic. The news of it has just reached The Pas, on the fringe of civilization.”
Kelleher went on to explain how a white man named Joe Labelle, whom he described as a “roving trapper of the Barren Lands,” came upon the tribe’s abandoned camp while crossing Angikuni Lake in his canoe. Long before he paddled to shore, Labelle knew that something was very wrong. Instead of the lively hum of activity which typically surrounded Inuit camps, the only humming in evidence was that of black flies, which swarmed about the bodies of seven sled dogs scattered throughout the grounds. When he hailed the camp’s unseen occupants, he was greeted by two half-starved huskies, which rose up on skeletal legs and slunk toward him, substituting the lusty barks by which Inuit sled dogs typically addressed strangers with pitiful whines.
Suspecting that the village had fallen victim to some terrible disease, Labelle walked over to one of the seven ragged tents that comprised the camp and cautiously drew back its caribou-skin door. “I’ll admit that when I went in the first tent I was a little jumpy,” he told Kelleher. “Just looking around, I could see the place hadn’t known any human life for months, and I expected to find corpses inside. But there was nothing there but the personal belongings of a family. A couple of deer parkas… were in one corner. Fish and deer bones were scattered about. There were a few pairs of boots, and an iron pot, greasy and black. Under one of the parkas I found a rifle. It had been there so long it was all rusty. The whole thing looked as if it had been left just that way by people who expected to come back. But they hadn’t come back.”
The trapper examined another tent, which had been torn to ribbons by the wind. Inside, he found three fox skins and a rusty rifle. “Those two rifles seemed strange,” he said. “The last thing an Eskimo ever parts with is his rifle.”
Try as he might, Labelle was unable to find any clue as to the fate of the vanished Inuit. There were no signs of trouble or violence. The only thing of interest he noted was an empty stone cairn by the lake shore, which he tentatively identified as a desecrated Inuit grave.
Labelle told Kelleher that the whole scene brought to mind the Tornrark, an evil spirit of Inuit legend sometimes depicted as an ugly man with tusks, whose predations the natives attempted to ward off with charms. This demon is likely an inland iteration of a deity which the Greenlandic Inuit called Torngarsuk, which some anthropologists have equated with the Devil. Shaking off the unsettling notion that the village had fallen prey to that preternatural predator, the trapper caught some fish in the lake, fed them to the two starving dogs, and fled the area, loath to spend the night there.
“Joe Labelle admits that stumbling upon the abandoned village gave him the creeps,” Kelleher concluded. “A man doesn’t get the creeps readily when he spends months at a time trudging by his lone across the Barren Lands, where there is never a house or a human being to break the white-rimmed silence; but Joe Labelle got creepy, just the same. The empty sky and the silent, rocky plain held a mystery, and the trapper didn’t like it.”
Following his disturbing discovery, Labelle travelled throughout the surrounding tundra, visiting several Inuit camps along the way. None of the natives he met were able to shed any light on the fate of their missing kinsmen, supposing, as he had, that they had probably been taken by the Tornrark.
Certain that the villagers had met some untimely end, the trapper proceeded to Le Pas, where he reported his discovery to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. With the help of local trappers, the Mounties launched a search for the missing Inuit, but were unable to find any sign of them. The only potential clues they managed to unearth came in the form of a 10-year-old Inuit boy of mysterious origins who wandered into another Inuit camp 150 miles north of Angikuni Lake, and an Inuit man named Saumek, who was suspected to know something about the fate of the vanished villagers. While being treated for frostbite at a Hudson’s Bay Company hospital, Saumek was interrogated by an interpreter in the Mounties’ employ. “But Saumek refused to talk about it,” Kelleher wrote, “mentioning Tornrark mysteriously and refusing to answer any questions.”
In the 93 years that have proceeded the publication of Kelleher’s article, the story of the vanished village of Angikuni Lake has appeared in dozens of books and TV programs on the unexplained, often being presented as a true historical mystery. Indeed, many of the story’s trappings are grounded in reality. Emmett E. Kelleher was a real northern journalist who, despite subsequent disparagements of his work and character, wrote serious articles on northern Canadian news, covering, for example, the famous 1929 search for the MacAlpine expedition, a party of aerial prospectors who became stranded in the middle of the northern tundra during a severe storm. Joe Labelle was a real trapper who plied his trade in the wilderness north of Flin Flon, Manitoba. Angikuni Lake is a real lake which does have a mysterious stone cairn on its shore. This structure, incidentally, was rediscovered by Canadian wildlife biologist and author Farley Mowat in 1948, who described it in his 1961 book Ordeal by Ice, writing that it “was not of normal Eskimo construction,” and proposing that it was erected by either Hudson’s Bay Company explorer Samuel Hearne, who visited the lake in 1770, or perhaps by Captain Francis Crozier, a member of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, who, in 1848, vanished without a trace along with 105 of his men somewhere in the Arctic wilderness. But the story itself, at least according to the RCMP, is a fabrication.
The Mounties’ first public rebuttal to Kelleher’s story was allegedly made less than two months after the article’s first publishing in the Muncie Evening Press. According to the prolific Canadian paranormal writer John Robert Colombo, in his 1988 book Mysterious Canada, Sergeant John Nelson of the RCMP’s Le Pas department investigated the alleged vanishing in the wake of the story’s circulation and submitted his report on January 5th, 1931. Twelve days later, RCMP Commissioner Cortlandt Starnes made Nelson’s report public. Although this author has been unable to locate a copy of the report, Colombo republished excerpts of it in his book.
According to the report, Nelson’s investigation consisted of speaking with a trader named D. Simons, who operated an independent trading post on the shores of Windy Lake, about 150 miles south of Lake Angikuni. Simons had not heard any reports of a vanished village from the reliable white and native trappers with whom he did business, and expressed doubt that such an event had taken place. Nelson then determined that the photo of the caribou skin tents displayed in Kelleher’s article did not depict abandoned lodges at Lake Angikuni, but had actually been taken back in 1909 in Fort Churchill, Manitoba, by an ex-Mountie named P. Rose. Although Nelson did not visit Lake Angikuni himself, nor interview any of the Inuit in the area, he was sufficiently confident to conclude his report by declaring that the story was, to his mind, a work of fiction, adding that “Mr. Kelleher is in the habit of writing colourful stories of the North, and very little credence can be given to his articles.”
Although Sergeant Nelson’s investigation was arguably far from thorough, it was enough for the RCMP to close the case on the vanished village of Lake Angikuni. The Mounties’ official position on the story has been borne out by the responses received by several researchers who have made formal inquiries into the case over the years, including Ronald G. Dobbins, who was told that the RCMP could not find any mention of the case in their records, and Dwight Whalen, who included his own debunking of the Lake Angikuni story in his article “Vanished Village Revisited,” which was published in the November 1976 issue of the magazine Fate. Today, the RCMP has a short paragraph on the mystery of Lake Angikuni on their official website, declaring flatly, “The story about the disappearance in the 1930’s of an Inuit village near Lake Anjikuni is not true.”
Despite its official debunking, the vanished village of Lake Angikuni, as mentioned, has been repeatedly presented as a genuine historical mystery in both print and television, often acquiring new details with every retelling. In his 1959 book Stranger Than Science, for example, American writer and radio broadcaster Frank Edwards wrote that one of the tents which Labelle examined contained a child-sized sealskin garment in the process of being mended. The ivory needle used to do the sewing was still embedded in the skin, as if the Inuit seamstress had hastily abandoned her work. Other supplementary details included a two-week on-site investigation by the Mounties, who determined that the Inuit had abandoned the village two months prior to Labelle’s visit “based on the type of berries found in some of the cooking pots,” and formal autopsies conducted by Mountie pathologists on the dead sled dogs, all seven of which proved to have died of starvation. Edwards, incidentally, would later resurrect another controversial tale of the unexplained set in Steep Rock, Ontario, which some readers may recall from my 2019 book Mysteries of Canada: Volume I.
Subsequent retellings of the story were less conservative in their use of artistic licence. In some of the many iterations of the tale that have since transformed Kelleher’s article into an urban legend, Joe Labelle’s discovery coincided with the sighting of a mysterious bullet-shaped light heading in the direction of the village, reported by trapper Arnauld Laurent and his son; pots filled with fish were found hanging over long-dead fires, as if they had been abandoned in the midst of cooking; and the settlement at Lake Angikuni graduated from a camp of 25 to an Arctic metropolis of 1,200 or 2,000 souls.
Sensational embellishments like these make it easy to accept the official narrative that the tale of the vanished village is nothing more than a far-fetched fable which, as Dwight Whalen put it in his article for Fate magazine, “an inexperienced trapper told to an imaginative and not too conscientious newsman.” Nevertheless, in this author’s opinion, at least, the case is not quite as open-and-shut as the RCMP would have us believe. It is not at all inconceivable that 25 Inuit, compelled to hastily abandon their camp on account of some extraordinary circumstance, might have lost their way and perished in the vast Keewatin Barrens. As mentioned, 82 years before the publication of Kelleher’s article, Captain Francis Crozier and 105 survivors of the disastrous Franklin expedition, a voyage of artic exploration conducted for the purpose of discovering the Northwest Passage, vanished without a trace in that very same stretch of wilderness. It is also not beyond the realm of possibility that news of such an isolated tragedy, which, by its nature, would lack primary witnesses, had not made its way into the trading room of D. Simons, 150 miles to the south, at the time of Sergeant Nelson’s investigation. Even in the 1930s, many Canadian Inuit lived the traditional way, speaking little to no English, occasionally meting out their own intra-national justice without recourse to the RCMP, and avoiding conversation on controversial subjects with white men they did not completely trust. The only detail which casts serious doubt upon the veracity of Kelleher’s story is his description of a diligent RCMP investigation, which Nelson’s lackluster report inadvertently belies.
Whether merely a Northern yarn or a genuine report overlooked by an understaffed and underfunded RCMP detachment, the tale of the vanished village of Angikuni Lake remains an excellent campfire story, and its more imaginative derivatives some of Canada’s greatest urban legends.
The Screaming Tunnel
Mysterious Canada: Strange Sights, Extraordinary Events, and Peculiar Places (1988), by John Robert Colombo
“They Live Magically,” by Pam Glenn in the January 26th, 1988 issue of the Tri Town Nugget (North Bay, Ontario)
“Fear and Trembling in Niagara: Ghosts, Ghouls, and Daredevils Haunt this Picturesque and Otherwise Serene Region,” by Bram Eisenthal in the October 30th, 1999 issue of the Gazette (Montreal, Quebec)
“Canada’s Spookiest Spots,” by John Robert Colombo in the October 28th, 2000 issue of the National Post (Toronto, Ontario)
The Wendigo of Fort Kent
“Lights, Camera, Action: Local Filmmaker Hopes to Make His Mark,” by Michelle Dacruz in the November 1st, 2002 issue of Fort McMurray Today
Season 2, Episode 2 of Creepy Canada (November 4th, 2003)
Place-Names of Alberta (1928), by Canada’s Department of the Interior on behalf of the Geographic Board of Canada
“Lessons Learned from Making a Movie: The Lost Town of Fort Kent,” by Leslie Chivers on https://lesliechiversdotcom.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/the-time-i-made-a-movie-the-lost-town-of-fort-kent/
The Monster of Thetis Lake
“Thetis Monster Seen by Boys,” in the August 22nd, 1972 issue of the Victoria Times
“‘Monster’ Sightings Probed by Mounties,” in the August 25th, 1972 issue of the Vancouver Sun
“Not Monster: Lizard in Lake?” in the August 26th, 1972 issue of the Victoria Times
“The Haidah Indians: Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia, With a Brief Description of their Carvings, Tattoo Designs, etc.” by James G. Swan in Volume 26 of the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge (1874)
“The Shocking Secret of Thetis Lake!” by Daniel Loxton in Volume 15, No. 2 of Skeptic (2009)
Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (2001), by George M. Eberhart
The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide (1999), by Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe
The Chilling Tale of Coughlan’s Coffin
“The Man Who Came Home,” in the January 1962 issue of Fate
A Player Under Three Reigns (1925), by Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson
Folklore: Prince Edward Island (1973), by Sterling Ramsay
“Coghlan, the Actor, dead: Had Been Sick in Galveston, Tex, for a Month: An Understudy Took His Part in ‘The Royal Box’ at the Coates House Two Weeks Ago – As a Playwright and Actor,” in the November 27th, 1899 issue of the Kansas City Star
“Death of Actor Coghlan: Succumbs to Attack of Illness While in Galveston,” in the November 28th, 1899 issue of the Kansas City Times
The Days I Knew (1925), by Lillie Langtry
“Swept Away: The Remains of Charles Coghlin, the Actor, Can Not Be Found,” in the September 25th, 1900 issue of the Elmira Gazette (Elmira, New York)
“Wrecked Cities of Dead: Work of the Storm in the Cemeteries of Galveston: Flood-Made Rafts Overturned Monuments and Tombstones: Several of the Vaults were So Crushed as to Leave the Caskets Exposed, and Thus the Storm Carried Off Some of the Dead,” in the September 20th, 1900 issue of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat
“Body Found Ten Miles from Cemetery: Charles Coghlan’s Remains Swept from Vault by Galveston Flood,” in the January 15th, 1907 issue of the Portsmouth Star
“Coghlan’s Coffin,” by Charles Burney Ward in the 1945 issue of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!
The Vanished Village of Angikuni Lake
“Northwest’s Mystery Stranger Than Fiction: Lone Trapper Chances on Village of the Dead: Tribe of Eskimos has Vanished,” by Emmett E. Kelleher in the November 25th, 1930 issue of the Muncie Evening Press
“Non-Events,” in the June 1973 issue of Anomaly
“That Disappearing Eskimo ‘Village,’” in the July 1973 issue of Pursuit
The Canadian UFO Report: The Best Cases Revealed (2006), by Chris Rutkowski and Geoff Dittman