Tuesday 5 February 2013

A witch, a warning, and a brush with death on the Southern Cross

Last week I found an intriguing message on my answering machine from Shirley Ryan, of Birchy Cove, Bonavista Bay. In it, she hinted at a mysterious story involving one of Newfoundland’s famous lost ships, the Southern Cross.

I called Ryan back, and she was eager to share her story of two men, Edmund Ryan and Leonard Skiffington.

“Now, Edmund Ryan was my girlfriend’s grandfather who lived just down across the garden, so to us, he was Uncle Ned,” she explains. “Uncle Ned always told the story about how he and Leonard left Birchy Cove, where he lived, to go across to Catalina. They were really lucky, they had gotten a berth on the Southern Cross.”

“They left Birchy Cove and they made their way to Catalina,” she describes. “I think they went over on a dogsled maybe, because there were no cars to bring them at that time, and the road across the country was little better than a path.”

The two men arrived in Catalina and were about to sign on.

“They had their berth already promised,” says Ryan. “They went into what he used to call a tavern. I’ve never known a tavern to be there, but maybe in them days there were. They went into this tavern to get a drink. Water was all they could afford. They had no money. So they asked the woman there for a glass of water each, and she gave them the water.”

When Uncle Ned turned, his arm knocked the glass onto the floor, breaking the woman’s glass.

“You have to pay for that glass,” she said to him.

He said, “Madam, I can’t pay, I have no money.”

“Where are you going?” the woman asked.

“We are going on the Southern Cross, we have a berth on the Southern Cross.”

“If you’re wise, you won’t go on that journey,” the woman said, “because you won’t return.”

“Now he was a man of great superstitions, and he took what she said to heart, and he came home,” describes Ryan. “But his friend Leonard wouldn’t listen to him and he went on that ship.”

The Southern Cross was built in Norway in 1886, and was originally named the Pollux. She was sold to the Newfoundland firm of Baine Johnson and renamed the SS Southern Cross around 1901, and she took part in the seal hunt every year from 1901 to 1914. Returning from the seal hunt in the final days of March, 1914, the Southern Cross fell out of normal communication. She was last heard of off Cape Pine, and then, nothing.

The Southern Cross vanished at sea, along with the 174 sailors and sealers on board her. Eventually, a marine court of enquiry determined that the ship sank in a blizzard on March 31, but the details remain, for the most part, unexplained. No crewmen nor record of the ill-fated voyage survived. Among the list of the dead was one Leonard Skiffington, originally of Newman's Cove, Bonavista Bay.

“Uncle Ned told us that story over and over and over,” says Ryan. “It’s a true story, he told it over and over, about how he took what she said as serious and accused her of being a witch. Well, lots of people were accused of being witches them days! But he said the woman that owned that tavern was a witch, and when she said that, that was enough for him. He didn’t go.”

“But Leonard did go, and well, Leonard never returned,” Ryan states. “Nobody ever returned, eh? That’s my little story.”