Illustration: Darlene Watters
Ghosts, sea monsters, and murder most foul — exploring Halifax’s haunted past
Here there be monsters
Halifax’s harbour is known for its highly trafficked waters, but sometimes this traffic is more than cruise ships, sailboats and Theodore the Tugboat.
According to Halifax Haunts: Exploring the City’s Spookiest Spaces, a fisherman caught a large turtle-like creature in 1752 near the location of the Sambro Lighthouse. Accounts say the creature had a “body the size of a large ox,” was covered in brown hair and loose skin, and a head like an alligator’s.
A second creature was said to have been spotted in 1825 by three separate groups of people near where the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic now stands. Witness William Barry told the Nova Scotian, as reported in New York’s The Telescope, that “he saw the head distinctly, and at one time eight coils of his body above the water, and is persuaded that he is at least 60 feet in length.”
“There so many other things that it could have been,” says Halifax Haunts author Steve Vernon. “I just think it’s fascinating that so many people have sworn that they saw it.”
While a concrete explanation hasn’t been given as to what was spotted in 1752 and 1825, there was an explanation given for a third sighting in 2003. A lobsterman saw what he thought was a log in the water, but upon further examination discovered a creature with the head of a turtle and a brown, snake-like body.
Vernon says this claim was later rebuffed by a staff member at the Museum of Natural History who said the creature could have been an oarfish. (An oarfish is a long, skinny, scaleless fish, living—but rarely seen—in temperate and tropical oceans.)
A curse upon the harbour
A torrid love affair is at the centre of a legend involving the section of water now occupied by the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge.
“People still believe in that to this day,” says Vernon. “A buddy of mine drives the number one bus … and he was telling me the other day he was going across the bridge and this one fellow starting freaking out saying ‘We’re all going to die; there’s a curse.’”
The legend is that during the 1700s, a Mi’kmaq woman living in the former Tufts Cove settlement fell in love with an English sailor. There was one problem; this woman was married to the son of her tribe’s chief. She decided to run away with the sailor, her husband in pursuit.
After catching up to the couple, the husband threw a hatchet at them, accidentally killing his wife. The sailor escaped in a nearby boat and the husband dove in after him, but the current was too strong and he drowned.
When the chief couldn’t find his son, he cursed the water and any bridges built across it saying, “first in a storm, second in silence, and third in death.”
This curse seemed true for the first two bridges built on that spot. In 1884, the Intercontinental Railway built wooden bridge connecting Halifax to Dartmouth, which Halifax Haunts refers to as “flimsy.” In 1891 the bridge was destroyed when a storm hit Halifax. Workers quickly built a new bridge, but two years later, after a coal train passed over it, a section of this new bridge broke away. Since no care was given to the bridge’s construction, its timber trestles got jammed and eventually snapped leaving the bridge unsecure. When a heavy tide pushed the trestles up, the structure simply floated away.
A third structure, the Macdonald Bridge, opened in 1955 and is still used today. To be safe, during the planning and construction stages, a Mi’kmaq chief and elders were consulted about lifting the curse, while a group from Indian Brook sang and chanted during the bridge’s opening ceremony.
The ghosts of the Five Fishermen
Built in 1817, the Five Fishermen restaurant building has been many things to many people: schoolhouse, the Victoria School of Art and Design, Snow & Company Undertaker, a warehouse, and home to a few ghosts.
“There are a lot of stories about that place because of it was a funeral home,” says Dusty Keleher of the Halifax Ghost Walk. During one ghostly encounter, a server was using a credit card machine when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He wanted to finish his task before turning to the person, but felt the tap again. When he turned around, no one was there.
Another server saw a grey, fog-like figure moving down the staircase, while another staff member was setting up the salad bar reportedly saw a man with long, grey hair and a long black coat. After going back into the kitchen to receive another tray, he heard a loud crash and saw that parts of the salad bar had tumbled to the floor. Bending down to pick up the mess, he glanced into a nearby mirror and saw the man walking away from him. Looking around, he didn’t see anyone. It’s not just the staff who have experienced a surreal presence at The Five Fishermen.
Keleher was told of a customer who before often walked with a limp because of back problems and got up to use the restroom during her meal.
“She was washing her hands in her bathroom and saw white light or aura pass behind her,” he says. “She returned to her table with a bounce in her step.”
The customer then went on to say that it seemed the light had pushed on her back and it seemed the injury was temporarily fixed.
A “murder” behind WM Robertson and Son
From the mid-1800s to 1976, the Robertson family ran their ship chandlery and hardware store on Lower Water Street. In 1982, along with the AM Smith and Company property, its building was used to create the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Today, Robertson’s has been restored to how it would have looked in the late 1800s.
An alley that once separated the store and its warehouse has also been incorporated into the museum and features a red stain on one of the walls.
Over the years, heritage interpreter Andrew Aulenback has heard a story or two about what this stain could be. Some of the stories are about visiting Robertson’s as customers, while others aren’t.
“Others have insisted in a hushed tone that ‘Did you know in the alley behind the Robertson’s store, there was a mugging and a murder with a knife,’” says Aulenback. “And … ‘I have been determinedly told, “the museum has never been able to get that blood stain there off the wall.’”
Aulenback has worked with the museum for about 15 years and has met with members of the Robertson family who say no one was murdered. They said that they used to keep paint shaker on the wall and that the stain is, in fact, red paint.
Despite the Robertson family denouncing the rumour, Aulenback shares the story with visitors during his Ghosts and Folklore tour.
Devils Island and the Henneberry’s
Devils Island doesn’t just have a spooky name; it also has a supernatural tale or two.
“The fellow that owns the island now swears it one of the most haunted sites in Nova Scotia,” says Vernon who wrote about Devils Island in his book in Haunted Harbours: Ghosts Stories from Old Nova Scotia.
While it’s mostly abandoned today, the island was once home to a small group of people, including members of the Henneberry family. “It was primarily just one family,” says Vernon. “but it was like a little town [on the island].”
In the early-20th century, Casper Henneberry was having a house party and became quite intoxicated. According to Ghosts Stories of the Maritimes Volume II, he ended up leaving his house, returning an hour later pale and wet. Henneberry told his guests he had gone down to the water where he saw a talking halibut. The fish stated it was the devil and that within 24 hours Henneberry was going to die and his soul would be taken to hell.
Friends dismissed the claims, but the next day Henneberry was found dead, sitting upright in his dory. It was later ruled he drowned. Another story from Steve Vernon tells of a Henneberry baby who died in his or her crib in the family home on Devils Island. After the child’s death, sounds of a baby crying could be heard throughout the house, which caused the family so much grief they tore the building down.
The house’s wood was later recycled by family members and neighbours who also reported hearing a baby’s cries and screams.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.