Ghost tales from P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

There's no shortage of ghost stories from Prince Edward Island's bygone days, and Halloween is the perfect time to share them. Historian Dutch Thompson even has a story of his own.

'He said "In the name of God, what do you want?"'

The phantom ship has been seen ablaze in the Northumberland Strait by many over the last 200-plus years. (CBC)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

There's no shortage of ghost stories from Prince Edward Island's bygone days, and Halloween is the perfect time to share them. 

Island historian Dutch Thompson has always been skeptical of the existence of ghosts, except for one time he and his son were rummaging around the old family homestead — which had been deserted for 80 years — and both saw the same woman. 

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"We both saw it — there's no explanation," Thompson said. "I mentioned it to one of my cousins much older than I am and he said 'Well that's your great-great-grandmother. She died in the house and she's been seen for over 100 years.'"

Fairies rode the horses

Thompson has spoken with many old-timers who said they'd seen ghosts, including brothers Johnny and Eddie Gill from Elliotvale, P.E.I., which is halfway between Charlottetown and Cardigan. 

Johnny and Eddie Gill of Elliotvale — their father once saw the fairies riding his horses. (Dutch Thompson)

Johnny and Eddie came from a family of more than 20 children. Their dad John Thomas Gill was a renowned blacksmith carriage maker and father, and over the years many stories were swapped back and forth over his forge anvil. 

"The fairies were supposed to be riding the horses at night. The horses got their manes all knotted up and tangled, some of the old fellas used to say it was the fairies," Johnny Gill told Thompson. 

Their father told the children he'd actually seen the fairies once. 

When the horses came in from the fields with tangled manes, it was said the fairies had been riding them. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

"He was coming up from some of the lower farms — those horses and the fairies on their backs was going fully galloping across the hills there in front of him! He studied it out for a while and he decided it was only his imagination," Johnny said. 

Eddie Gill told a similar story about a ghost seen for weeks in St. Joachim's graveyard just down the road in Vernon River — but it turned out to be a white goat.

'Tables and chairs all moved around'

Just down the road from Thomas Gill's blacksmith shop, in Alberry Plains, the late Jimmy Doyle was a great storyteller. He passed on those skills to his daughter, P.E.I. folk singer-songwriter Teresa Doyle. 

Jimmy Doyle of Summerville said he experienced paranormal activity that moved the furniture one night in the 1920s. (Dutch Thompson)

Jimmy Doyle told Thompson a story about a ghost seen at the Evans house — now long gone — back in the 1920s.

"I was working in the woods and I stayed there one night the tables and chairs all moved around, all by themselves," Doyle said. "Charlie made shine in there, that didn't help any. Scary, boy!" 

Doyle also recalled one terrifying night as he was on his way to a dance in Vernon River with a friend. 

"There was a dance in Vernon River one night, years ago, horse and wagon. And we went to the dance. It was a cold, wet night. And we stopped into Charlie Evans's on our way and when Brian was in getting a titchie of shine, I could see this here woman coming across the yard with no head on her — she had no head on her! And I said Brian, look at the woman! And as soon as I said that she disappeared, gone.

"I wasn't the first to see that woman," Doyle said — and he never saw her again, although he admitted with a laugh he "didn't want to." 

'I had a strange feeling'

Ruth VanIderstine was born in Vernon Bridge in 1911. She grew up in a strict Christian house — Presbyterian on her mother's side and Methodist on her father's — not really a household you'd expect would encourage encounters with ghosts and forerunners. 

The ghost ship of the Northumberland Strait was even made into a stamp in 2014, one of a series about Canadian ghost stories. (Courtesy Canada Post)

And yet Ruth VanIderstine had several. One, she told Thompson, happened at Vernon Wharf when she was a youngster.

"I went in swimming alone, which I shouldn't have done. But I was swimming and all of a sudden I had an urge to leave — something was wrong at the wharf and I left the water and I had a strange feeling," she recalled to Thompson. 

"So when I went home they said 'You're back early,' and I said 'Something's happened, somebody has drowned.' Because I had a chill and and I had to leave the water — I got a message. Sure enough, he was from Montague and he was visiting over the neighbours, he went swimming and he drowned and they couldn't save him. A young fella, he was only 17 or something."

VanIderstine also said she'd once seen the phantom ship of the Northumberland Strait — the ship's sails were on fire and there were men jumping overboard. That's the same ghost ship seen by hundreds of people since the late 1700s from Tignish, P.E.I., to Cape Breton and all points in between. It's even been memorialized in a song by Island troubadour Lennie Gallant. 

'I seen it before it happened'

VanIderstine told Thompson that from the time she was a little girl, she had always had a sixth sense for things of a psychic nature, especially forerunners.

'I'd see it ahead, and it would happen exactly,' says Ruth VanIderstine of how she was frequently able to see the future. (Dutch Thompson)

"Even the teachers used to say 'You're so different, Ruth,'" she said. "I'd see it ahead, and it would happen exactly."

She said sometimes she'd see things a week before they happened, and sometimes the day before. 

Once on a trip to Vancouver, she had a strong feeling she had to phone home. She told her daughter Joan something had happened. 

"I seen Clayton, my son's son, in an accident," she said. "I told them over the phone where it happened and what was wrong with him and they said 'Who told you?' I seen it before it happened." 

Her grandson had, indeed, been injured in a car accident. 

Debts can haunt you

Dougall "Dunkie" MacDonald told Thompson he saw ghosts and experienced forerunners. MacDonald was born in Bailey's Brook, N.S., in 1918 and he firmly believed in the devil. He grew up in an old-fashioned Scottish-Celtic community in which people spoke Gaelic, played the fiddle and religiously went to church every Sunday.

There was an unquestioned belief in the afterlife, MacDonald said, and most people in the area had first-hand experiences. MacDonald told Thompson he himself saw the devil seven times in his life, often in the shape of a black dog. 

MacDonald shared a ghost story of one of his neighbours — Archie MacLean of Cloverville. MacLean told MacDonald of his ghost encounter with another neighbour who'd been killed overseas in the First World War. 

"He was going to Antigonish one day in an old car and he had a flat tire — broad daylight in the afternoon. And he was fixing the tire when he felt somebody around him. He turned around and here was the soldier, his neighbour. And he knew he wanted help. 

"And he said 'In the name of God, what do you want?' And he told him 'You're going to Antigonish, can you pay $14 for my suit? If you do I'll never bother you again.' He said 'I will.'

The man quickly fixed the tire and went to the tailor shop in Antigonish, where staff looked up the bill. The solider had bought the suit there in 1918 to wear to Halifax to enlist, but hadn't paid his bill before he was killed in action. 

MacDonald believed there would be a big reward in heaven for helping to put such spirits to rest, like this soldier who wouldn't rest until his debt was paid.

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With files from Sara Fraser