Wednesday 7 February 2024

The Case of Matterface: A legendary ghost story from St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and Labrador

Legend holds that around 1835, an English clerk by the name of Matterface, working at the Newman and Company’s plantation at St. Lawrence suffered an untimely demise. 

Embalming was impossible, so the mortal remains of Matterface were preserved inside a barrel of rum until the body, by that point well pickled, could be taken back to England for burial. 

When the barrel was opened, it was found to be drained of its liquor. Locals, unaware of the barrel’s true contents, had been sneaking drinks of the tainted rum. 

Some say the barrel, with Matterface still in it, was buried in Little St Lawrence, down in the cove on Turpin’s Island. 

Folklore claims Matterface’s ghost haunts the island. 

Cousins spending the night in a tent on Turpin’s Island heard something scary circling the tent, round and round.  

Suddenly their campfire, which had been left burning, was snuffed out, like someone blowing out a candle. 

They all took off screaming.

If you visit today, you might find signs of a rock covered grave. Remember the legend though: don’t go at night. And be careful what you take along to quench your thirst. 

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. 

Monday 5 February 2024

Haddock: The Fish the Devil Touched

Would you eat a fish that had been marked by the Prince of Darkness himself? You may have, without knowing it. 

Haddock is one of the most valuable food fishes of Europe, both fresh and smoked.  The fish has long been popular due to its delicate flake and tender texture. Early cookbooks mention “rizzared” or sun dried haddock, as a popular fare on breakfast tables. After the Industrial Revolution, English fishing vessels travelled far and wide for haddock in order to satisfy a booming demand for fish and chips.

One of the identifying features of the haddock is its large blackish spot above each pectoral fin. Because of this mark, the haddock has the unfortunate reputation as being the fish the Devil touched, a belief brought to Newfoundland with English settlers. This spot is known in Newfoundland as the devil's thumb-print, which the Dictionary of Newfoundland English describes as being “black marks on haddock's back - from a belief that the devil once grabbed the fish, which then got away.” 

One version of the legend says the mark was created when St. Peter and the Devil were fishing.  The Devil caught a haddock, but St. Peter freed the fish.  As it swam away, the Devil tried to grab it. The black mark represents the Devil's fingerprint, and the dark lateral line along the side of the fish represents the scratch marks from his devilish nails as the fish slipped out of Satan’s grasp.

More righteous souls claim that the marks were left by the finger and thumb of St Peter when he opened the fish’s mouth to take out a coin. It is another good story, but the humble haddock is a salt water fish, and could not survive in the fresh water of the Sea of Galilee. 

So was the mark on the haddock burned there by infernal powers? 

Only the haddock, and possibly the Devil, know for certain.