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Podcast Episode 44 – Folklore & Ghost Stories

Welcome to episode 44 in our podcast Life in the Talbot Settlement    

The Talbot Settlement quickly became home to many people after word spread of the new lands. The majority of settlers come from Ireland, Scotland, England, and in later years, Germany. Along with the settlers, various traditions and beliefs followed them from their previous homes. In today’s episode, we discuss some of the past superstitions and ghost stories of the Talbot Settlement. 

Many people of Western Elgin recall the story of the Cowal ghost. This story was brought back to our attention by Duncan McTavish and his sister Marg who participated in our senior’s oral history project. One day while the children of Cowal were at school, a white ghost-like figure was spotted by some farmers. The men ran to the school telling the kids to go home and stay inside. Children rushed to their homes scared and confused. Meanwhile, the men took to the woods with their hunting rifles following bare human footprints in the ground. Soon the figure was spotted again, guns pointed directly at the strange phenomenon. This ghostly figure was no ghost at all. In fact, it was a neighbour who had gone hunting in the off season and decided that a white sheet would be able to keep the deer from spotting him. Luckily the man had not been shot at by the “Cowal ghost hunters”. Marg says even though everyone in the community had been frightened by the events taking place that afternoon, she wasn’t scared at all. As a matter of fact, after dinner she went across the road to skate all alone. 

If life here in the Talbot Settlement was a little dry, the settlers didn’t have to look far to get the latest strange happenings. The daily newspapers were filled with stories from murders to hypnotism bringing the settlers with drama from all over the world. One article in the Wednesday September 3rd, 1890, paper in St. Thomas Daily Times reads: 

“HYPNOTIC RELIGION-Extraordinary Influence of a Female Evangelist, -Said to be Insane, – Her Surprising Influence on Immense Audiences 

St. Louis, Mo., Sept. 1.- For two months Mrs. Maria B. Woodworth, the evangelist, has been conducting a revival here in a tent capable of sheltering nine thousand people. For the past two weeks these meetings have increased in interest and excitement, until they have become sensational in the extreme. Mrs. Woodworth is assisted by several singing and praying lieutenants. During the past week it has been a nightly occurrence to see from 50 to 250 men, women, and children stretched flat upon their backs on the ground or on the platform writhing in religious frenzy, or in a dead stupor from exhaustion, while 1,000 more excited individuals danced, shouted, cried, sang, and swung their arms in the air. Dr. Wellington Adams and Dr. Theodore Diller, authorities on insanity, declare that Mrs. Woodworth is simply an insane woman of great hypnotic power, that the trances into which she throws her auditors are simply Hypnos. They declare that she is doing great harm to thousands and is creating evils from which there can be no cure. When the doctors questioned the woman she gave a history of her life, telling in detail of the marvelous visions. She claims to have conversed with God, Christ, and the Trinity and the devil many times, in fact to be at the present time on familiar terms with all of them. She also said she has seen both heaven and hell and told what they looked like. She is the same woman who, while at Oakland, Cal., preached great earthquakes and tidal waves that would destroy the large cities.” 

This woman would later be known around the world as the Trance Evangelist and Mother of Pentecost. Maria became one of the most influential Pentecostal Evangelists of the early 1900s.  

Across the beachfronts of Lake Erie, residents of the shores have reported witnessing phantom ships on the horizon, appearing for a few minutes before slipping into the haze. Though more than just phantom ships have been reported on the waters…The following tale takes place in the Welland Canal, a canal we mentioned in a previous episode Ports & Shipwrecks of the Talbot Settlement. This spooky legend tells of a ghost dog linked to the ship Mary Jane who saw her last day on Lake Erie in 1881. The ship sailed long ago on Lake Erie with its mascot, a large black newfoundland dog. In midst of the voyage their 4-legged friend fell overboard and was crushed by the gate of a canal lock. This would not be the last time the dog would be spotted. It is said that the dog haunted the crew as night fell with endless baying howls. Some believe the dog was angered by the crew’s inability or unwillingness to rescue him. It is said that the dog appears on ships that face oncoming trouble. The black figure will appear on deck or climb aboard from the water and cross the ship before leaping off the other side. The ghost dog has been reported to be seen on not only Lake Erie but on doomed ships on almost all the Great Lakes.  

Many residents of Fingal have heard the gruesome stories of the medical students who studied in the once bustling town. Some tales may seem so disturbing that you ought to think they are made up. One lady recalled seeing students soak human limbs in a little creek that cut across the fields on the eastern edge of the village. It is rumored the students retrieved the bodies from the lake. After storms corpses would often wash up. Unidentifiable, the students would simply take them for research. Body snatching from cemeteries was also very popular at this point in time. This story and many more equally disturbing ones were told by numerous early community members. Leaving those of us hearing them disgusted and in disbelief. Later the villagers would bring an end to the medical school in Fingal, it’s no question why.   

The next story is recalled by George Bowes in Sim’s History of Elgin County Volume I. Frome is a little settlement west of Talbotville where a beautiful girl with charming manners once lived. This young woman was seen as very sensitive in nature and any turn in life took a tremendous toll on her mentally. When her father died, she was plunged into a state of melancholy. Since that fateful day of her father’s passing, she thought of nothing but ending her sorrows. One cold winter night, two men were heading home after spending the evening at the Payne’s Saloon at Talbotville Royal. Suddenly a white figure appeared outside of the cemetery and glided across the center of the road. The men, startled, fled the scene in terror not knowing what they had just witnessed. The next day, news spread in the village. The townspeople speculated that it was the troubled girl. The young lady while sleepwalking, slipped out of her farm home which she shared with her mother, in only a white nightgown and slippers. She had walked all the way from her residence in Frome to the Penwarden House. There she was discovered by a passerby and taken to the Amasa Wood Hospital. She stayed at the facility until she recovered from frostbite on the feet and hands. After returning to her home in Frome, she lived quietly. That is until the following Spring. The weather was warming, and people in the area began cleaning up their yards. A bonfire was made to rid of the brush and bushes. Suddenly, the girl darted out of her house and cast herself into the flames. The young woman now lay beside her father in the Frome Cemetery.  

Next, we tell the story of the ghost of Stalter’s Gully. This story starts with an unfortunate event. A young woman drowned herself in the nearby gully after her parents would not allow her to marry the man she loved. Heartbroken, she left her home and disappeared. As the day progressed her parents became worried and alarmed the neighbours and hired help to search for her in the countryside. By nightfall her body was found in a stream that threaded its way through the gully. Her body was recovered by the community and placed on the ropes of her bed. The sorrowful parents and neighbours retired to the sitting room awaiting the arrival of the morning. During the night, a creaking was heard from her bedroom, upon investigation they found everything in order. The initial thought was that the dampness of her body was affecting the ropes of the bed, causing a possible creaking sound. Though the ropes were strangely dry. It was then that they noticed the window of her bedroom was open when they distinctly remembered closing it before they retired to the sitting room. They closed the window again, turning to leave the room, when suddenly the window, together with the bedroom door opened just as fast as they had been closed. Frightened, one of the men propped himself against the door but was flung across the room by an invisible force. When morning came, one of the men went to the barn to start his daily chores and to prepare the wagon to summon help. Grabbing the pitchfork, he went to lift it off the ground and for some strange reason could not muster the strength. Alarming the other men, they came to help but to no avail every one of them could not lift the pitchfork. It was like a giant magnetic force was restricting them from lifting this object even an inch off the ground. Events like this did not cease until the undertaker removed the body from the property. Strange occurrences like this were never experienced again at the family’s home. Not long after the girl’s death, a figure started appearing in the area of Stalter’s Gully. These appearances of a lonely walking man appeared periodically for over 30 years. On one occurrence, the figure stood in the middle of the road near the Halfway House and frightened a driver and his horse. It is said the horse became unmanageable. This peculiar sight of a wandering soul was only seen by some in the community, resulting in some being accused of over-indulgence. After a certain gentleman was laid to rest at the Hankinson Cemetery, the figure was never reported seen again. Some wonder if this man was the girl’s lover who wandered the area in search of his other half.  

This next tale is remembered by John Kenneth Galbraith, a professor of economics at Harvard. According to a local legend, treasure is buried on the site of Searle’s hill east of Black’s hill. It is believed the American soldiers on their way to Port Talbot during the War of 1812 buried their plunder in this spot. One day long ago, some men in Dutton got intoxicated and around midnight equipped themselves with shovels and headed to the hill. With all their effort, the effects of the alcohol wore off. No treasure was found that day. And a legend remains. 

When researching we came across a book called Canadian Folk-lore from Ontario. It documents accounts from various people in Ontario. One of which was from Elgin County, Miss. Jean W. Barr. There were many long held customs formerly observed in Elgin County. Having strongly held legends and superstitions were very common in the 1800s. Families often opened the door into the room in which a corpse was lying to let their spirit depart into the unknown. “Telling the bees” Was another popular belief. Crape was sometimes tied to the beehives and left there until after the funeral. To dream of red ground or muddy water is to bring bad luck. If the pallbearers for any reason turn again into the house with the coffin, another death will soon follow the last. These were all believed by the settlers to be signs of foretelling death. Among farmers, many superstitions were believed to be good or bad luck. The first colt or lamb in the springtime coming towards you means good luck. If it is reversed bad luck will soon ensue. On the first day of ploughing, if you see a farmer making his furrow towards you, luck is in your favor. One old legend of Elgin County tells of a little girl who lay dying of consumption. One evening two young boys were heading home through the forest. Suddenly ahead of them, they saw a girl cross their path. Noticing her as their friend, they called out her name, but she swiftly disappeared among the trees. Upon reaching home, the boys rushed to their kitchen happily exclaiming “Nellie is better! We saw her in the woods!” To their surprise, Nellie had died an hour before. 

Thank you for listening or reading this weeks podcast episode, we hope it didn’t scare you too much! Catch us next week with Episode 45 Herstory!