Forerunners: Supernatural Warnings of Disaster
The DeStefano Television
The December 1962 issue of the magazine Fate – one of the many editions of that publication which can be found in the archives of the late great Fortean researcher Gary Mangiacopra – contains a fascinating article written by Gus Cazzola of Union City, New Jersey. In this piece, Cazzola describes a strange phenomenon unique to his in-laws, the DeStefano family, who hailed from the New Jersey town of West New York.
Cazzola was introduced to this weird familial quirk on March 17th, 1958, when he and his wife’s family were gathered around the DeStefano television set. “Suddenly, at 4:00 P.M.,” Cazzola wrote, “a bright flash cut through the crowded room. I blinked frantically to regain my sight. The television was black; obviously, a tube had blown. My in-laws, however, didn’t take it so lightly. My father-in-law turned a ghoulish white and abruptly left the room. The kids gaped in horror at the silent set and ran outside. Even my wife gripped my arm a little harder.
“‘What’s going on?’ I asked innocently. My wife shook her head mutely and uttered a strained laugh.
“Shortly thereafter, we received word that my wife’s grandmother, Mrs. Mary DeStefano, had died at about 1:00, three hours before the television set blew.”
Cazzola came to learn that this precise series of events invariably succeeded a death in the family. When someone close to the DeStefanos died, their television would blow out exactly three hours later, like clockwork. The same thing happened in February 1959, when Cazzola’s wife’s grandfather passed away; and in March 1960, when her great uncle died. Cazzola had the dead TV examined professionally after one of these incidents, and learned that the internal wiring and insulation had melted together into a single solid mass, as if the device had been struck by a lightning bolt. The only deviation from this appalling pattern occurred in May 1962, when Cazzola’s father-in-law, Joseph DeStefano, accidentally crushed his hand at work. Three hours later, the picture tube in the family television set blew out, but the audio remained unaltered.
The strange case of the DeStefanos and their television sets strongly evokes the legend of the forerunner – a peculiarity of Canadian Maritime folklore which bears elements in common with the shrieking Banshee of Irish tradition and the ominous doppelganger of German lore. The forerunner is a portent of death perhaps most closely akin to the wraith of Scottish ghostlore, wraiths being shades of the recently-deceased which appear to friends and family members at the moment of the former’s death, as if in an attempt to inform them of the development, or to say goodbye. While classic wraiths manifest as visible apparitions, forerunners are invisible harbingers of death, which communicate their awful messages through touch and sound.
Helen Creighton’s Death Knocks
Perhaps the most authoritative summary of the forerunner phenomenon is a passage in the 1957 classic Bluenose Ghosts, written by Nova Scotian folklorist Dr. Helen Creighton. “Forerunners,” Creighton wrote in the first chapter of her book, “are supernatural warnings of approaching events, and are usually connected with impending death. They come in many forms, and are startling, as though the important thing is to get the hearer’s attention. The most common forerunners are a picture falling off a wall or a calendar dropping to the floor at the moment when a distant loved one has died. Or you may hear your named called as I did when the mother of a friend died, although she had not called me at all.”
Creighton dedicated a good portion of her book to the forerunner phenomenon, including two such stories in her Prologue. The first anecdote she related was her own personal experience, which took place just prior to the death of her sister-in-law, the wife of her eldest brother, who had battled for some time with a deadly sickness.
“It had been a long illness,” she wrote, “one that was very hard on both the patient and her family. We turned to anything that would distract the children, and one evening three of us sat in the drawing-room playing cards. Suddenly we were interrupted by a loud knocking. We all heard it and stopped playing. I made the obvious remark, ‘There’s someone at the door.’”
One of Creighton’s daughters pointed out that the sound couldn’t have been a person knocking, as there was no door on that side of the house. Nevertheless, to satisfy their mother’s curiosity, another of her daughters went to the front door and confirmed that there was indeed no one there.
At the time, Creighton was mystified by the experience, and made no connection between it and the death of her sister-in-law, which took place shortly thereafter. It was only years later, in 1928, when she interviewed two elderly Nova Scotian brothers as part of an effort to collect traditional Maritime folk tunes, that she was made aware that the three sharp raps she had heard on the wall were classic cases of what old Eastern Canadians called “death knocks”.
“These are heard in certain houses or by certain people,” she wrote, “and they come as a warning of approaching death. Whether my sister-in-law died on the day following the knocks or a few days later, none of us could recall… Certainly at the time, we all heard it – three slow deliberate knocks that insisted upon our attention.
“I’ve heard the knocks only once since then, and in a different house. I was sitting at my desk one morning shortly before twelve o’clock when I was startled by three distinct knocks. In my house there are many noises caused partly by the steam-heating system, and partly by people in other apartments. But there was something about these knocks that disturbed me greatly.”
Alarmed, Creighton asked her neighbour, who lived in the adjoining apartment, whether she had also heard the knocks, but the neighbour hadn’t heard a thing. Fearing the worst, Creighton drove to the home of a friend whom she had seen earlier that day, who was suffering from a mild illness, but determined that her friend was fine.
Later that day, after she had returned to her own apartment, she received a phone call informing her that the husband of a close friend had died in a car accident around the same time she had heard the knocks. “When his wife was asked whom she would like to have with her,” Creighton wrote, “she had asked for me. Knowing she would want me, and all three of us being very close, I suppose he had been trying to get through to me.”
Death Knocks on Prince Edward Island
Not confined to the traditions of Nova Scotia, the story of the death knock is also a staple of Prince Edward Island folklore, Prince Edward Island (PEI) being Canada’s smallest province, nestled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence just north of Nova Scotia. Folklorist Sterling Ramsay included one such story in his 1973 book Folklore: Prince Edward Island.
“Island people in years gone by,” Ramsay wrote in his introduction to the subject, “were rather firm believers in forerunners: in supernatural warnings of one kind or another of impending death or some event that lay ahead in the future. Many people who disclaimed all belief in the supernatural openly admitted to at least one time or another being confronted with a forerunner in one of its many forms… Two of the most common are the hearing of one’s name being called at the time of another’s death and three mysterious knocks at a door when apparently there is no one else around that could have done the knocking. Both of these are found in this one experience, a rather unusual occurrence.”
Ramsey proceeded to relate the account of a woman from Ellerslie, a rural community located Up West, as Islanders refer to the wilder western half of their island province. In the summer of 1967, the storyteller and her family moved into a farmhouse at Ellerslie. Shortly after their relocation, her widowed mother came to spend a few weeks with them, as was her summer custom. Although she was 72 years old, her mother was healthy and active, and prided herself on never having been sick a day in her life.
“It was late one night on the second week she was with us,” the storyteller said, “that she came to my bedroom to ask if I had knocked on her door. She had heard three knocks but when she went to the door and looked into the hall, there was nobody to be seen. The next morning we discovered that no one had been near her room and she had been the only one to hear the knocking. We were certain that she had imagined the whole thing, but three nights later it happened again. This time I also heard what sounded like three knocks coming from down the hall. Again we could not discover who or what was responsible. The following week mother went home and I completely forgot what had gone on during her visit.
“On the first evening after mother left I decided to retire early, but sometime during the night I was awakened by what sounded like a woman’s voice. The more I listened, the more it sounded like the voice of my mother calling my name. I was unable to go back to sleep so I went down to the kitchen and noticed that it was just about three o’clock. I put the whole thing down as some sort of strange dream and thought nothing more of it until the next morning when I received a call from the woman who shared my mother’s home.
“She had been called to mother’s room at about a quarter to three the previous night. Mother seemed deathly ill and a few minutes later she passed on. I knew then what it all had meant.”
Three Knocks as Demonic Activity
It is perhaps worth mentioning here that three disembodied knocks have been associated with the poltergeist phenomenon, and have been reported in many suspected cases of demonic infestation. For example, readers of this author’s 2018 book Mysteries of Canada: Volume I may recall the story of Louis and Ethel Hilchie, whose home in a peaceful suburb of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was invaded by some malicious invisible entity on Christmas Eve, 1943, which first announced its presence by shattering the evening’s tranquility with three deep, hollow-sounding knocks.
As controversial American demonologist Ed Warren explained in an interview with writer Gerald Brittle:
“Phenomena that occur in threes are a signature of the demonic… Often, the very first thing to happen in a case of infestation is that there will be three knocks at the door. There won’t be anyone there, of course, at least nobody visible…
“Three is used as a signal… Three is purposely used as an insult – to mock the Trinity.”
Who Slapped Aunt Min?
One rare sort of forerunner evoking the death knock phenomenon was described by one Venona Hutmacher in her article in the June 1961 issue of Fate. Although Venona was a resident of Toronto, Ontario, at the time she penned her story, she had grown up in the rural community of Ship Harbour, on the eastern shores of Nova Scotia up the coast from Halifax.
When she was a little girl, Venona’s beautiful young Aunt Min lived with her and her family. Back in 1895, Aunt Min was engaged to marry a fisherman named Dan. Like most members of his profession at that time, Dan spent most of the week sleeping in a shack on one of the little islands that dotted the coastline, from which he could head out to sea in his fishing boat early every weekday morning. Every Saturday night, he and his fellow fishermen came back to the mainland in order to spend Sundays with their families.
“It was a week before the wedding on a Saturday night,” Venona wrote. “A terrible storm had blown up. The wind howled like a Banshee; thunder and lightning rent the skies. The sea rolled in torrents and breakers, rising mountains high, dashed against the shores. The rafters of our house shook with the terrible force of the gale and everyone remembered the fishermen on the Islands who would not be coming home this night.
“My mother was knitting and Father was reading. We youngsters were busy at our school work. Aunt Min was sitting by the fire with her feet in the oven, as she said that bad storms always ‘gave her a chill’. It was late spring, lobster fishing time, but there was always need of a bit of fire.
“Mother bundled us children off to bed finally but my room was just off the kitchen where the family usually spent their evenings and I could hear every word of the conversation. Aunt Min seemed worried and pensive. I heard her speaking to my father. ‘Jim,’ she said, ‘do you suppose Dan would attempt to cross the Bay tonight?’
“Father answered, ‘Only a fool would attempt to cross on a night like this and Dan’s no fool.’
“‘Well, I don’t know,’ Min continued. ‘Our wedding is only a week away, you know. He would want to come in if possible.’
“‘Of course he would, Min,’ Mother said. ‘But he wouldn’t dare try it.’
“‘Well, my girl,’ Father said half seriously, ‘If he does there’ll be no wedding you can be sure of that.’
“Everything was silent for a while then, except for the beat of the storm outside. Suddenly I heard Aunt Min scream in an angry high-pitched voice, ‘Jim, how dare you slap me like that?’
“‘Slap you?’ Father said. ‘Are you crazy, girl? I didn’t slap you.’
“‘How dumb do you think I am?’ Aunt Min replied. ‘Just don’t do it again, Jim. I’m not in the mood for fun.’
“Mother thought Aunt Min might be getting a sudden jumping toothache and only imagined she’d been slapped for certainly no one there had slapped her. But a few moments later she jumped up again, her voice very angry, accusing Father of slapping her a second time.
“Father said he thought she was taking leave of her senses.
“But Aunt Min had been slapped twice and what else could she think that her brother was playing a silly trick on her. She had turned around to face Father and Mother then, to put an end to the nonsense, when suddenly she received another hard slap. She could see it had not been Father after all.
“‘But what hit me? Who did it?’ she said. And then quite suddenly she began to cry. Somehow Aunt Min knew it was Dan. He had tried to cross the Bay after all and now was in trouble and needed her. She knew it. Deep inside, she knew that Dan was dead. I heard her say so.
“Grandfather found Dan’s boat the following morning where she had drifted ashore on Catfish Point, her sails flapping loosely in the wind that had died down to a pleasant breeze. Nearby lay Dan’s bruised body. It had come drifting in with his boat. Dan had been struck with the boom and apparently knocked overboard unconscious.
“So, there was no wedding after all.
“But who, or what, had slapped Aunt Min? And why?
“Was it Dan’s subconscious mind calling to his loved one for help in his hour of need? Or did Aunt Min also feel the blows of the boom that killed Dan? We do not know. But we remember the terrible night that something slapped Aunt Min.”
Auditory Rehearsals of Funerary Preparations
Following her exposition of the death knock phenomenon, Helen Creighton, in Bluenose Ghosts, went on to describe a number of other Nova Scotian forerunner stories she had collected, lumping various phenomena which other folkloric traditions know by different names – like premonitions, wills-o’-the-wisp, and the aforementioned wraith and doppelganger – under the same broad forerunner umbrella, as have all other Maritime folklorists who have written on the subject.
One unique type of forerunner detailed in Bluenose Ghosts is a strange and unaccountable noise which, though initially meaningless to those who hear it, will later be replicated exactly during some heart-rending future scene, such as the funerary preparations of someone known to the hearers. These auditory omens are often, if not invariably, heard in the exact same locations as that at which the events they foretell will later take place. Like the doppelganger phenomenon, they almost inspire the impression that they are the cryptic attempts of some paranormal force to warn the residents of a certain area of an impending tragedy, or to prepare them for some future emotional trauma. Alternatively, proponents of the Stone Tape Theory – the idea that emotionally-charged events can be indelibly seared into particular locations and replayed to hapless passers-by like ghostly tape recordings – might argue that these aural auguries are the imperishable byproducts of powerful emotions, which are bound to the places at which they were experienced, and which somehow transcend the temporal dimension. A third explanation for this strange phenomenon was proposed by folklorist Mary L. Fraser in her 1932 book Folklore of Nova Scotia. “There is a persistent tradition,” Fraser wrote, “that the spirits of the living rehearse the making of coffins, the funeral preparations, even the funeral processions. Those who have the Second Sight see these things, those who have not, very often hear what is going on, although they cannot see them.”
The Second Sight to which Fraser referred is an Anglo-Celtic term, borrowed from the British Isles, denoting the gift of clairvoyance, and a sensitivity to preternatural phenomena. Some of those who have written on the subject have proposed that forerunner stories are so prevalent in Atlantic Canada because, with the exception of the native Mi’kmaq, the descendants of old Acadian settlers, the progeny of German immigrants, and the descendants of black Loyalists, most of the region is populated by people of Scottish, Irish, and English stock, those ethnicities supposedly having a higher incidence of that mysterious characteristic.
Auditory Forerunners on Cape Sable Island
Bluenose Ghosts contains two tales of auditory forerunners, which Helen Creighton heard firsthand. Both of these stories are set in the town of Clarke’s Harbour, on Cape Sable Island, a bleak windswept isle which lies just off the province’s southern tip. One of these stories was told by a widow who had spent her whole live in that seaside settlement. When she was a girl, this woman’s father spent the winters fishing at sea. In order to keep her mother company, one of her female cousins often moved into their house for the season and slept in her mother’s bed at night.
“One night,” the widow told Creighton, “at twelve o’clock something woke them up, and at first neither of them spoke. Finally my cousin said, ‘Aunt Isabel, do you hear anything?’
“She said yes, she did. It was a frosty night, and what they heard was a rumbling coming down the road, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble. It rumbled by the house like a wagon was going over a frosty road. They were frozen in bed because it seemed to be coming straight towards our house, and that’s what it did.
“It came rumbling around the house and stopped by the front door. They clung together in terror. Then they heard a knock like somebody pounding on something that was frozen. Then it sounded like something being thrown away. By and by it started again and turned around and rumbled back over the road until the sound was lost in the distance. They couldn’t figure it out because they knew the sound of every wagon and who owned it, and who would that be driving up the road and turning off and stopping at their very door?”
Terrified, the storyteller’s mother and cousin together roused their neighbour, Maurice Nickerson, and informed him of the strange sounds they had heard. Lantern in hand, Nickerson examined the road outside the house, but could find no evidence of wagon tracks in the snow. He then condescended to spend the night in the ladies’ house in order to keep them company, and nobly stood sentry until dawn.
The women were terrified that the strange commotion was a forerunner heralding the death of the man of the house, whom they presumed had drowned at sea. “Ma cried and took on something awful,” the storyteller said, “but the forerunner wasn’t for my father. It was for one of the little boys who was taken sick and in a week was dead from diphtheria.
“The day he was buried was frosty and cold, just as it had been that night. He had been prepared in the house for burial. Then the hearse started up the road for the funeral, and it made exactly the same noise they had heard. All the people in the house could hear it coming over the frosty ground, and it came rumbling up the frozen road and rumbled right up to the house. Then it stopped before the door just the way they’d heard it. Ma and my aunt couldn’t speak. They were listening for the next thing to happen. The hearse had a door at the back with a lock, and the undertaker couldn’t get the lock open, so he picked up a rock and hit it. Then he threw the rock away exactly as they’d heard it that night. Everything was repeated in detail, and it happened about sixty years ago.”
Creighton’s second story was told to her by Miss Evelyn Swim, a housemate of the widowed teller of the previous story. The strange event which features in this tale is a hybrid of the two types of forerunners above described, namely the death knock, and the auditory rehearsal of funerary preparations.
One day years earlier, when Swim lived with her parents, a sick toddler, whom she did not identify, was sleeping in a room in her family’s house. “He was not thought sick enough to die,” Swim told the folklorist. “Mother was stitching, and Aunt Julie had just come from her room when they heard a little knock. Mother said, ‘You go see who that is.’ Aunt Julie went, but she came back and said, ‘Levie, there’s nobody there.’ Then came another knock. She looked out and still there was nobody there. She went back to the child’s room and everything seemed in order. The knock came then for the third time. They couldn’t understand it unless it was somebody playing a prank, but there was no sign of anybody anywhere. In a few days the baby passed away, and shortly afterwards the coffin maker came to get measurements. He put the child’s body in the coffin and he used a hammer to drive little brads into the coffin. This happened three times and was so exactly like the sounds they had heard that they realized it had been a forerunner.”
More Auditory Forerunners in Nova Scotia
Mary Fraser included two remarkably similar stories in her own book. “In pioneer days,” she explained, “there were no undertakers, so coffins had to be made in the most convenient place in the neighbourhood. Many people heard in advance the assembling of the boards for the purpose, and the ghostly strokes of the hammer, as the following stories will show.”
The first of Fraser’s stories was a tale she heard first-hand. One frosty February morning in the early 1890s, two cousins drove to their uncle’s farmhouse with a truckload of boards, intending to use their uncle’s workshop to build a coffin for an old neighbour who had died in his home nearby. Before they began their work, they were greeted by their female cousin, their uncle’s daughter, who said, “I hope you are going to finish your job this time. Many a cold night I lay awake listening to that truck driving up to the door, and those boards being thrown off. Then the sawing, planing and hammering would begin, so that I was terrified to death, for I thought one of the family was going to die.” Her story was corroborated by her father, who claimed that he, too, had heard the disturbing nocturnal carpentry work, but had never told any of his family members for fear of alarming them.
In Fraser’s second story, two young sisters sat at night in their grandfather’s country home with a child whom they knew was dying. All of a sudden, the peaceful night air was rent by the sound of hammering and sawing in their grandfather’s workshop outside. A quick investigation revealed that there was nobody in the workshop, and that the girls’ grandfather was snoring softly in his bed.
“Isn’t it strange,” one of the girls remarked, “there is grandfather sleeping quietly, yet listen to his spirit working out there at the coffin that he’ll make only tomorrow.” Sure enough, the child they were watching died before morning, and the girls’ grandfather immediately set to work building a coffin, his saw and hammer making the very same sounds they had heard the previous night.
The Phantom Screams of Winging Point
Perhaps the eeriest auditory forerunner in Helen Creighton’s book is that which features in a story told by Reverend Grant MacDonald, a minister of the United Church in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. MacDonald’s story is set near his hometown of Fourchu, located on the southeastern shores of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, a large picturesque landmass which sits off the northern tip of the Nova Scotian peninsula. Just northeast of Fourchu is a narrow cape known as Winging Point, at which a small fishing shack once stood. Shortly after the conclusion of WWI, this shack was occupied by a man named Fred, a newcomer to Cape Breton Island. According to Reverend MacDonald, Fred frequently came into the neigbouring village of Gabarus with bloodshot eyes and threadbare nerves, claiming that he could not sleep in his shack on account of hideous shrieks he heard at night on the ocean air. The screams were the heartrending wails of men in agony and despair, and seemed to seep out of the very atmosphere.
“His stories were not taken too seriously,” Creighton wrote, “because he was an outsider and little was known of his background, but people encouraged him because he would be almost beside himself as he talked, and they were greatly entertained. Finally he could take it no longer and he moved away and nobody knew what became of him.”
Five years later, in the spring of 1924, a Canadian fishing trawler called the Mikado foundered off the shores of Winging Point. “The sea was too rough for any of the crew to be rescued,” Creighton wrote, “and the people on shore looked helplessly on as sailors and all dropped one by one from the masts to which they had been clinging, shrieking with despair. It was thought some may even have gone insane before they finally lost hold.
“The fishing shack had been unoccupied for five years, ever since Fred had left it. Now it was opened up and, as soon as weather permitted, the bodies were brought in and placed upon the floor. As they were going about their sorry business the men recalled the sounds that Fred had reported. Ever since then the people roundabout have concluded that he had heard the forerunner of this event.”
The Jumping Horse of Murray Harbour
Another account of this sort of forerunner appears in Sterling Ramsay’s book. This tale was told by Islander Jack Murchison, and is set in the hamlet of Murray Harbour, at the southeastern end of Prince Edward Island. According to the story, one cold winter night sometime in the 1940s, Jack took his mother on his one-horse sleigh to the home of a neighbour, Angus Matheson, where local ladies were gathering for a Women’s Institute Meeting. Jack’s father, Charlie Murchison, opted to stay home at the farmhouse, pleading indisposition.
At about 10:00, Charlie heard Jack’s horse violently launch himself over a snowbank in front of the house and crash down soundly on the other side. Believing that his son and wife had returned home, Charlie went to the door and shouted, “Is that you, Jack?” There was no reply.
Fearing that some accident might have taken place on the road, and that Jack’s horse had returned without him and his mother, Charlie put on his winter clothes and trudged through the snow to the barn. The horse he had heard was nowhere to be seen. Even more curiously, there were no tracks of a horse or a sleigh near the snowbank where he had heard the commotion. Baffled, Charlie went back inside and awaited the arrival of Jack and his wife, who returned shortly thereafter.
“That Sunday morning,” Ramsay wrote, “Jack Murchison had a request from a Mr. Ev Harris in Murray River. His father-in-law had died and he wanted Mr. Murchison to go down with the horses and get a rough board box at Murray River. The grave was to be dug at Caledonia.
“Mr. Murchison took his rather mischievous horse to Murray River and when he came to turn in his lane – he had the rough board box on the sleigh – the horse jumped and carried on and proceeded to jump over the snowbank in front of the house. His father who was then sitting in the house stated emphatically, ‘That’s the noise I heard Friday night.’ It seems that Mr. Murchison had, in fact, heard a forerunner of the dead man.”
Mary Fraser included several auditory forerunner stories in her own book, Folklore of Nova Scotia. The first story she related was told to her by a man whose grandfather once routinely visited a relative who was confined to bed by a severe illness. “One night,” she wrote, “this relative seemed so near death that he remained until a very late hour. As he was returning home by the highway, walking in the middle of the road… he was almost smothered by some terrible obstruction that he could not see. With difficulty he succeeded in getting off the road, and then he stood aside and listened. He could hear distinctly the sound of passing feet, then came the clatter of wagon wheels which he could even hear going over a stone on the road. He waited, until what seemed a whole procession had gone by, then made for his home.”
Early the following morning, the man returned to the scene of his strange experience to see whether the phantom procession he had heard and felt had left any evidence of its passage in the light dusting of snow that covered the ground. None could be found.
The very next day, the sick relative died, convincing the storyteller’s grandfather that he had encountered the forerunner of his funeral.
Fraser went on to relate a similar story in which two sisters, while walking home from their grandmother’s house, found themselves caught in the midst of a phantom cavalcade which proved, to all appearances, to be a ghostly rehearsal of a funeral procession which headed down that road the very next day.
This particular forerunner also appears in the folklore of Prince Edward Island. As Sterling Ramsay explained, “Islanders may remember how, as children, they were cautioned never, under any circumstances, to walk in the middle of the road. Perhaps they are not familiar with the rather obscure origins of this superstition. In part, the warning is against being run over or trampled by the horses which frequented Island roads once upon a time; but the complete explanation goes further than just a matter of safety. It was all a matter of one of the most common manifestations of a forerunner on Prince Edward Island; namely, that the horses in a funeral procession often passed over a road several days before a man, woman, or child in the district died.”
The Bell Ringers of the Kirk of St. James
The most famous forerunner tale in the Canadian Maritimes is that alleged to have taken place at the Kirk of St. James, a Presbyterian church near downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on October 7th, 1853. Early that morning, so the story goes, a sea captain named Cross set out on foot from the district of Brighton, at Charlottetown’s southwestern end, bound for a particular stable to the northeast, where he expected to pick up a horse that his father had sent him from England. At about 5:30 in the morning, when he was halfway over Black Sam’s Bridge (a bygone structure located near the present-day confluence of Euston and Rochford Street, near downtown Charlottetown), a bell began to ring nearby. Captain Cross’ first instinct was that the peals were those of a ship’s bell signifying the arrival of a ship in the harbour, but when he looked towards the waterfront, there were no strange vessels in sight.
Intrigued, Cross walked in the direction of the incessant clanging and found that it emanated from the bell tower of the Kirk of St. James. As he approached the place of worship, he saw three women dressed in white gowns standing on the church threshold, the double doors of the main entrance wide open before them. The women seemed oblivious to the approaching sea captain and did not raise their eyes in his direction. A fourth white-clad figure could be seen through the slatted windows of the bell tower ringing the church bell vigorously.
Captain Cross was not the only Charlottetown resident drawn to the church by the mysterious tolling. Both the parish’s pastor, Reverend Dr. William Snodgrass, and its sexton, Davy Nicholson, knew that there was no occasion for the bell to be ringing at such an early hour. Suspecting that some impious pranksters had broken into the church and decided to give the town an early morning wakeup call, they both simultaneously leapt out of their beds when they heard the bell’s strident peals and made their ways with all haste towards the Kirk of St. James.
The younger Nicholson arrived at the church around the same time as Captain Cross. Like the latter, he clearly saw three white-robed women standing on the threshold of the church and a fourth in the belfry, laying on the bell. Before the two men had a chance to approach the women and inquire as to the reason for their untimely and unsanctioned bell ringing operation, the church doors closed on them in unison. The mysterious bell ringer also disappeared, leaving no sign of her presence but the lingering vibrations of the bell’s final peal.
Astonished, both Cross and Nicholson tried the church doors, but found them locked. At that moment, Reverend Dr. Snodgrass rounded the corner. Cross and Nicholson told the minister about the three women and the vanishing figure in the bell tower, but Snodgrass dismissed their story as preposterous, demanding that Nicholson open the church and search the belfry for the pranksters that were surely hidden there. The sexton did as requested with the assistance of Captain Cross, but found the tower empty.
Later that morning, a mail steamer called the Fairy Queen left Charlottetown Harbour bound for Pictou, Nova Scotia, on the other side of the Northumberland Strait. At the time of her departure, the Fairy Queen was said to have been in very poor condition, her rotting hull having been freshly painted in an effort to disguise its frail constitution from the eyes of discerning passengers. That afternoon, not far from her destination, the steamer was beset by a ferocious October gale which belied the reassurances of her painted façade. The Fairy Queen sank in the frigid waters of the Northumberland Strait, resulting in the drowning of four women and three men. Three of the deceased were parishioners at the Kirk of St. James, and in the wake of the disaster, many Charlottetown residents suspected that the three white-clad women seen earlier that morning, along with the mysterious bell ringing that initially struck Captain Cross as the peals of a ship’s bell, were forerunners portending the wreck of the Fairy Queen.
“Tragedy on TV,” by Gus Cazzola in the December 1962 issue of Fate
Bluenose Ghosts (1957), by Dr. Helen Creighton
Folklore of Nova Scotia (1932), by Mary L. Fraser
Folklore: Prince Edward Island (1973), by Sterling Ramsay
“Who Slapped Aunt Min?” by Venona Hutchmacher in the June 1961 issue of Fate
The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed & Lorraine Warren (1980), by Gerald Brittle