By Kim Ploughman
The folklore around the French Shore is a colourful one, but one story is especially riveting. It involves a skipper, his worried wife, a sea trunk, a mystifying visitation and a riveting wake. In his 1986 book, Sea Stories from Newfoundland, Michael Harrington shares this strange story, which is still talked about today in Conche.
The French Shore was an area of coastal Newfoundland and Labrador where French fishermen were granted seasonal fishing rights by Britain from 1713 to 1904. During this time, Conche, on the eastern side of the Great Northern Peninsula, became a thriving French fishing station. English settlers were often hired as “guardians” to protect their premises when the fishermen returned to France in the winter.
In the late 1800s, brothers John and Ned, descendants of English guardians, were business partners. Ned went to sea as skipper of their fishing schooner, Elsie, while John took care of the business on land.
On Christmas Eve, 1871, the Elsie was placed in quarters against “the long winter seize,” Harrington wrote, meaning she was stripped of canvas and fittings. That same day, Conche was visited by a huge patch of seals. The folks put out all their seal nets and hauled in more than 1,000 seals. As Harrington explained, “for the people of Conche, it was a welcome Christmas box.”
Skipper Ned brought home his sea chest from the schooner while the rest of the men were off sealing. He and his wife looked over the important effects and papers in the trunk, but were soon called away by Christmas festivities.
On March 10, 1872, the Elsie was outfitted to set sail on the first sealing trip of the season. Ned’s chest was taken aboard and stowed under his bunk. A week later, the Elsie had “struck the fat.” In just seven days, the crew had over 6,000 seal pelts stowed away. They could head for home - if the vessel wasn’t jammed in heavy ice about 70 miles from Conche.
As he laid in his bunk that night, things started to get a little strange for Ned. First, he heard the distinct sound on the stairway of “like the rustle of silk and satin.” A woman then entered his cabin - to his shock and dismay, it was his wife, Ellen. With a look of concern, Ellen knelt down and hauled the sea chest from under the bunk and opened it. As Ned watched, she took out each article and placed it all back, then exited up the stairs. Ned was devastated - he took the apparition to mean his dear wife had passed away.
Back in Conche, Ellen Dower, 42 at the time, had worked herself up over the legal papers she and her husband had looked at on Christmas Eve. She didn’t know if her husband had these with him or if they were missing. As several weeks passed, her anxiety increased and she became ill from the stress. As her daughter read to her one evening, Ellen appeared to fall asleep. When her daughter couldn’t wake her, she called for help. Neighbours arrived to find Ellen’s skin had a deathly pallor and they could find no pulse.
This story was also featured in the book, Ghost Stories of Newfoundland, by Edward Butts, who commented on the wake. “The whole community went into mourning. Ellen Dower had been loved and respected by everyone because of her gentle nature and acts of charity.” Everyone remarked on the peaceful look as she lay in her coffin. “It was as though she were awake and the hands of death had not touched her.”
Then something strange occurred on day two of her wake. Ellen’s cheeks flushed red and her cold, clammy body became warm with life. She let out a sigh, opened her eyes and uttered, “Oh, I am so tired. I have been far. I have been with Ned.”
She recounted how she had travelled out to the ice and then “out on the bosom of the Atlantic,” Harrington describes. “Pushed on by some invisible power, I continued on the long, the pathless, the dreary road,” until she reached the schooner. She climbed up and went aboard.
Meanwhile, back on the Elsie, the men had heard of Skipper Ned’s eerie visitation. They all prayed for wind to set the schooner free so they could be home for the funeral. Less than 24 hours later, their prayers were answered and the Elsie sailed into Conche within a day. The crew, especially the captain, rejoiced when they tied up to the wharf and learned that Ellen Dower was, in fact, alive and well.
The Conche cemetery records that Ellen Dower, “Beloved Wife of Edward Dower,” died on November 28, 1883, at the age of 52. Ned passed away on December 7, 1896.
According to Harrington, the tale “remains to the day, one of the most compelling among the true tales of Newfoundland.” And as Butt explains, “Part of the story’s appeal is that besides being a ghost story, it is a tale of undying love.”