Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Brass Button Man - an urban legend from Burnt Islands, Newfoundland and Labrador

By Dale Jarvis

Stalking through the fog near Burnt Islands is a strange figure, with an insatiable, supernatural appetite for a rather ordinary object. 

The Brass Button Man is a possibly murderous spirit who haunts the southwest coast of Newfoundland on foggy nights. 

If you’re out in the fog he will sneak up on you, tap you on the shoulder, and ask for brass buttons. If you have one – you’re safe. If you don’t, he will snatch you up and take you away in his dory, never to be seen again.

The origins of the Brass Button Man legend are murky. The expression “brass button” referring to a soldier or officer was well-known in North America by the 1860s, appearing in ballads in the 1870s.

In 1935, the Western Star newspaper, Corner Brook, printed a children’s story about a dog named Shadow, who was accidentally abducted by a “brass button man” - the uniformed driver of a passenger bus. At the end of the story, Shadow’s poor little paws were sore and bleeding, and the dog had still not found his way home, ensuring local children were unlikely to trust any brass button men they might come across. 

Brass button men are often associated with pirate ghosts guarding their treasure. One northern Newfoundland story tells how Aunt Et repeatedly had a sailor dressed up with brass buttons come to her in her dreams. The man told her there was money buried in a spot called Dane's Bight, and to visit at midnight. When she eventually approached the spot, she was frightened off by the sights and sounds of phantom sword fighting.

In 1990, Newfoundland folk musician Eric West produced his own version of the legend, sending shivers down kids' backs as he sang about a strange fellow lurking on Duck Island.

Another version of the Brass Button Man is found in a ghostly legend from Shalloway Brook, located between the appropriately named Deadman’s Bay and Musgrave Harbour.  A local man was surrounded by a whirlwind, when there wasn’t a draft of wind anywhere else. Then, he saw a figure materialize out of the  whirlwind: a man with one wooden leg, wearing a uniform with brass buttons down the front. The ghost was wearing a three cornered hat and carrying a cutlass in his right hand, with a great wound in his head.

Old legends fade slowly, and the Burnt Islands story is still told and retold today as an urban legend. If you should be out late in the fog, and come across a man asking you for a brass button, you best be prepared to tear one off your jeans, lest you become the most recent victim of the Brass Button Man. 

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