A Deadly Duel and the Headless Ghost Left Behind
Some Spirits are Reluctant to Depart this World
It is said, by those who claim to know such things, that the spirits of people who suffer a violent death tend to remain lurking near their place of death instead of departing this world.
Some think that these spirits are waiting to see justice done before departing the world permanently, while others have different theories.
Whatever the reason, stories of people claiming to have seen ghosts have been told down through the ages. And, there are some places where reports of such sitings have continued for hundreds of years.
In the story below a young French military officer is killed in a sword fight and, not satisfied with merely killing his opponent, the victor goes a step further and decapitates the victim with his sword.
The killer proceeds to throw the head into the middle of a river whose current carries it into a nearby lake where it eventually comes to rest on the bottom.
The body is then dumped into an unused, nearby well.
Ever since this tragic death, there have been accounts of people claiming to have seen the ghost of the headless body of the young officer aimlessly wandering around the halls and grounds of the old colonial fort where the death took place.
The spirit of this murdered young officer obviously wishes to reunite the head with the torso before departing.
However, over three hundred years have elapsed since the fatal sword fight and the ghost can still be seen on dark nights seeking, in vain its missing, head.
What follows is a story about a summer love affair in what was then the wilderness of western New York or, as it was called at the time, New France, which ended in tragedy for the two young officers involved.
A Young Trooper in Quarters at Old Ft Niagara
Garrison Duty on the Frontier was Lonely and Hard on Single Men
Situated on the south shore of the Niagara River, at the point where the river flows into Lake Ontario, is Old Fort Niagara.
For over three centuries, soldiers of France, Britain and the United States have manned this fort as it guarded the entrance to the interior of the North American continent.
Today the continent has been explored and settled with easy access to all points between the two coasts by planes, trains and cars.
However, in centuries past when the interior was unsettled and relatively unexplored but overflowing with riches, especially animal furs highly prized in Europe, the main route inland was via boat sailing the Great Lakes and the Niagara River was the waterway that connected eastern end of this waterway with the lakes leading into the interior.
The fort was originally constructed by the French as a frontier military post with the purpose of defending French control of the lucrative fur trading route to the interior It also served as a supply depot and trading post for fur trading with the Indians.
During the periods of peace between the colonial wars with Britain and the periodic conflicts with the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy who inhabited the area, the fort took on the atmosphere of a trading center rather than a military post.
During these periods, temporary settlements grew up around the fort as groups of Indians and their families set up camps and fur traders and trappers settled with their families.
With its gates thrown open and arms mostly stored, the fort during these periods took on the appearance of a bustling town square. Trade and commerce, not war, became the focus of those in the area.
The Indians camped around the fort accompanied by their wives and children. The traders and trappers also had their families with them as did the senior officers at the fort.
The young soldiers, however, were usually single and lonely.
Two Young Soldiers in Love with the Same Woman
Since peace reigned in the wilderness of what was then known as New France, there was little for the soldiers at the fort to do that summer as the main business of the fort was to accommodate the traders who had settled in for the summer.
The traders did a thriving business trading French made goods in exchange for the rich loads of furs brought in by the Indian and French trappers who arrived daily in canoes loaded with furs.
You can imagine the excitement of the troops that summer when the neighboring camp included a beautiful young woman the same age as that of the virile young troops.
All were eager to compete for her affections but, when two young officers took a strong interest in her, the others backed off.
However, neither of these two were willing to back off and their rivalry became intense.
That summer's peace left the troops with little to do by the way of soldiering and many took advantage of the free time to pursue other, non-military pursuits.
In the case of our two young officers this meant abundant time to court the beautiful young Iroquois maiden.
While women are always flattered by the attentions of multiple men courting them, at some point a young woman has to make a choice and settle on just one of her suitors in order to take the relationship to the next stage.
At this point the remaining suitors are forced to accept defeat and gracefully move on with their lives. But there are some men who refuse to give up and the loser in this affair was one such man.
The approach of autumn that year found the young lover spending his time trying to convince his beloved to remain with him at the fort and become his wife rather than returning with her family to their distant village.
At the same time the young man was still having to fend off the attempts of his brother officer to lure the young maiden away for himself.
The Two Young Officers Fight a Duel to the Death for the Hand of the Maiden
Everyone could see the tensions mounting between the two officers and the long anticipated fight between the two took place during a chance encounter late one night in early Autumn.
The day had started out well enough as the officer who had won the affections of the young maiden had made his way to the fields and managed to sneak his lover out from under the watchful eyes of her mother and other women who were busily at work harvesting the crops.
However, much as she loved him, the young woman remained undecided as to whether leave her family and the land of her birth to marry the dashing young Frenchman and eventually follow him to a life across the sea in France.
He, of course was not about to throw away his promising military career and his dream of a building home and family in France for a life with the Iroquois in the wilderness of the New World.
As he made his way back to the fort he was frustrated both by his lack of success in getting his love to change her mind and the pressure of the knowledge that her family would be leaving the area any day now.
While passing the home of a merchant friend and his wife, he accepted an invitation to stay for dinner after which, while sharing a jug of local brew, he sat until late in the evening pouring out his troubles to his friend and attempting to drown his sorrows with the fiery liquid.
Meanwhile his rival, who was equally frustrated, found himself that evening in the camp of a group of trappers who had arrived from the west earlier that day and were in the process of celebrating and consuming the large quantity of drink purchased with the profits from the sale of their furs.
Like his brother officer, he had planned to make another attempt at convincing the Iroquois maiden to change her mind about him.
However, a change in the duty roster for the day had forced him to remain at the fort until afternoon and when he managed to arrive in the fields he found that the object of his attentions had already left with his fellow officer.
It was dark and quiet in the wee hours of the morning as the two officers, drunk with anger and liquor, made their way back to the fort from different directions.
As fate would have it, they met on the dark ground in front of the French Castle.
While the rest of the inhabitants of the fort remained sound asleep, these two glared at each other with a hatred in their eyes that was darker than the moonless night that engulfed them.
A fight was inevitable.
However, instead of fists, swords were quickly drawn and a battle to the death ensued.
As both were good swordsmen, the fight, under other circumstances, might have ended in a draw with fatigue draining their anger.
However, being tipsy from the quantity of drink each had consumed, mistakes were made and a lucky thrust by one while other's guard was down quickly ended the fight.
The Headless Body Is Thrown Down a Well
The officer who had refused to give up despite the young maiden's choice of his rival now lay dead at the feet of that rival.
However, with his anger not yet spent, the victor proceeded to hack off the head of his fallen victim and then proceeded to pitch it like a rock into the middle of the river where it was quickly swept by the current into the middle of the lake where it eventually came to a rest at the bottom with fathoms of water above it.
His anger finally spent, the victor now faced the problem of disposing of the body which was too heavy to heave into the middle of the river.
As the first gray light of dawn began to appear in the eastern sky, he searched quickly for a place to hide the evidence of his crime.
Spying the well inside the entrance of the castle, he quickly removed the cover, dumped the headless body of his rival down the deep well and then replaced the heavy cover.
Since the well was only used during sieges, the chances of finding the body any time soon were slim.
Well Inside Castle Where Headless Body was Dumped
The Murder is Forced to Flee to the Wilderness with the Iroquois Maiden
With a guilty conscience, the officer made his way to his quarters and fell fast asleep.
While sleep had allowed him to escape his problems, upon awakening he was forced to confront the fact that not only was he about to lose the love of his life but also faced the danger that his crime would be discovered and the consequences of that would have to be faced.
Despite the lack of physical evidence, rumors quickly began circulating over the next couple of days that he was the key to the sudden disappearance of the missing officer officer.
Certain that his crime was about to be discovered, the young officer knew his dreams of a successful military career and the hoped for home and family in France could come to an abrupt end at the hands of a judge and hangman.
However, there was still his dream of marrying the young Iroquois woman and having a home and family with her.
While it would not be as a French military officer or having her at his side at a home in France, he could still have her and escape the hangman at the same time.
Parade Ground in Front of Castle at Old Fort Niagara
So, instead of the young maiden cutting her ties with her family and land of her birth to marry him, he would end up cutting his ties to his distant homeland and his people to marry her.
A few days later, as the Iroquois packed their belongings and began the long trip back to their village, they were accompanied by the young officer at the side of his new wife.
Had evidence been found in time to arrest the officer and ship him to Quebec City or Montreal for trial, a record might have survived to verify this tale.
As it was, all that was officially known was that two officers were competing for the affection of an Indian maiden, one mysteriously disappeared one night and the other also disappeared a few days later.
The rumor mill at the fort had theories and explanations but these weren't sufficient to go to the time and expense of an official inquiry.
In the eyes of the commander, both men probably became bored with garrison life and decided to seek their fortunes by participating, illegally, in the fur trade as coureurs de bois.
More than likely, even the rumors would have been forgotten within a few months had it not been for the periodic sightings of a headless ghost wandering around the grounds on moonless nights.
That, plus the probable discovery of the headless body wearing the uniform of a French colonial military officer in the well, is probably why the legend of the headless ghost of Fort Niagara persists to this day.
Old Ft. Niagara Guarding the Mouth of the Niagara River
© 2008 Chuck Nugent
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