Charlottetown's Phantom Bell Ringers
Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island is Canada’s smallest province, both in size and in population. It sits in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, connected to the rest of Canada by the eight-mile long Confederation Bridge. Explorer Jacques Cartier first saw the island in 1534 during his visit to the Gulf. In one sentence, he aptly described the island as “the fairest land that may possibly be seen full of goodly meadows and trees.” With its rolling hills and red beaches, time has not tampered with the pastoral beauty of Prince Edward Island.
Along with its physical charm, the island is known for growing potatoes; holding the longest-running annual musical theatre production, Anne of Green Gables; and hosting the first meeting that led to Canada’s confederation. In September 1864, the Fathers of Confederation first met at Province House, which sits at 165 Richmond Street in Charlottetown. Built with maritime sandstone between 1843 and 1847, it is now the hub of political life for islanders.
The Auld Kirk of St. James
Minutes from Province House, St. James Presbyterian Church sits at the corner of Fitzroy and Pownal streets. The original Presbyterian church was built in 1831 and was called the Kirk of St. James. In 1877, it was moved north on the site to make room for building the church that stands there today. In 1895, the Kirk of St. James was sold. The main part of the church was used to build a house that is no longer on the island. However, the narthex was detached and used in the construction of a house that is still standing today. There isn’t just a physical presence of the “Auld Kirk” that remains on the island: The old church is part of a ghostly legend so deeply rooted in maritime folklore that Canada Post featured the story on a stamp released in 2016.
The Ghostly Bell Ringers
The wind howled viciously on October 7, 1853, in Charlottetown. However, its high-pitched wails were not what wrestled Captain Cross from his peaceful slumber. The sea captain woke to the peal of church bells. The captain dressed quickly, wondering what was going on so early on a Friday morning. He stumbled out into the darkness, curiosity slowly taking over his sleep-tinged thoughts. When outside, the captain oriented himself and soon realized the sound was coming from the Kirk of St. James. Now fully alert, he ran toward the church.
Four Phantom Women
When he arrived, he saw three women dressed in flowing white gowns. Ignoring him, they opened the door to the belfry. As the captain watched them disappear through the door, he felt a tug on his arm that made his heart somersault. The captain breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the church sexton had joined him. The sexton’s wide eyes were focused on the belfry tower where another woman looked down.
Wondering what the women were up to, the two men ran to the belfry door and found it locked. The sexton searched his coat pocket and retrieved a key. With trembling hands, he unlocked the door and both men ran up the stairs, looking for the ladies. They were shocked when they found the belfry empty. The vibrating bell was the only testament to the women’s presence.
The Fairy Queen
On that same day in Charlottetown, a battered mail steamer was scheduled to sail to Pictou, Nova Scotia at 6:00 a.m. The Fairy Queen also transported passengers, and on this blustery morning, 13 people showed up to be taken from the island. However, the ship's captain, Belyea, chose to delay the ship’s departure because of the weather. As the day wore on, the wind weakened, and the captain decided to leave Charlottetown at noon. Along with the 13 passengers, 13 crew manned the ship.
A Disastrous Journey
As the trip progressed, the tiller rope broke on the cursed steamer. The crew, with the help of some of the male passengers, managed to splice the steering mechanism back together; however, this took awhile to do. While they were working, the ship entered open water where the strong wind tossed the vessel around like a child’s toy. Eventually, the crew had to bail out water.
The Fairy Queen’s luck remained bad. The water found its way to the boilers and doused the fires, causing the engine to seize and stop. The captain supervised the crew while they tried to restart the boilers, but the water was coming in too fast. The crew bailed water until 10:00 p.m. At that time, Captain Bulyea told them to stop because the situation was hopeless. Their only hope for survival was to abandon the ship.
Inhumanity of the Crew
The failed ship had two lifeboats, one that could carry 24 passengers and the other, 8–10. The larger boat was lowered first, and the captain made sure that the mail and his best clothes were put into it. When a passenger queried Belyea about saving the ladies first, he said the women would go into the smaller lifeboat. Sadly, when the second lifeboat was lowered, some of the crew jumped into it.
The captain assured the angered passengers that he would get into the larger lifeboat and hold it steady for the women to climb into it. But once Belyea was in the boat, the mate let go of the rope. The remaining passengers screamed for mercy as the boat floated away. They begged for the crew to come back and at least take the women. But the pleas landed on deaf ears.
The Fairy Queen Sinks
Around midnight on October 8, the treacherous waves tore the ship apart and turned it over. Some of the survivors used parts of the broken ship as rafts and drifted to different parts of Nova Scotia. Among the people who died that stormy night were four women passengers: Three were parishioners of the Auld Kirk of St. James.
Folklorist Helen Creighton describes forerunners as “supernatural warnings of approaching events and, are usually connected with impending death.” Tales of forerunners are an integral part of eastern Canadian folklore. While many stories exist in the Maritimes, there is a well-known, particularly eerie one about a country doctor travelling the back roads of Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
A Mysterious Light
The doctor had a big country practice and had to travel untamed roads to see his patients. On his way home one night, his horse balked. While the doctor was trying to get the animal to move, he spotted a light coming toward him. Perhaps he was hoping help was coming. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Frozen, the doctor watched the light stop right beside him and in its bright core, he saw a heavenly face, which slowly faded with the light.
A week later, with the strange experience still haunting him, the doctor was called to an accident involving a family of three on the same road. A sulky had overturned in the same spot the doctor had been stopped at. When he examined the motionless child, he was saddened to discover that the child had died. Eerily, he recognized the child’s angelic face: he had seen it a week ago in the white light.
Forms of Forerunners
Forerunners can appear in many forms. A well-known forerunner is birds hitting the window of a house. This avian calamity is a prediction of impending death. Other forerunners include bells ringing, dogs howling, knocking, and seeing an image of yourself (a doppelganger). The English poet Percy Shelley saw his double and told his wife, Mary, about it. Shortly afterward, he died.
The four ghostly women who visited the auld Kirk that windy day in October were forerunners. They came as a warning, but was their mission to prevent the death toll or prepare the community for it? Did they ring the bells in a desperate plea to keep the Fairy Queen from sailing? Were they hoping that one of the people who responded, a sea captain, would know well that no vessel should sail in such bad weather? Or were they simply sent as a sign, a mystical way of warning that an inevitable tragedy was about to occur? We will never know.