Episode 158: A Grain of TruthLore
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- 23 Nov 2020
Oftentimes, the truth is right in front of us, made as plain as day and easy to access. But sometimes it’s lost, and the only way to track it down is through story. But as one island in the Pacific Northwest demonstrates, digging for the truth often comes at a price.
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For a very long time, they were just stories, a handful of tales that painted a picture of long ago passed down from generation to generation among the First Nations people who lived along the Pacific coast of British Columbia, stories of ancestors in the distant past, living at the ocean's edge, fishing and hunting and building their lives in partnership with nature. And then those stories became fact in 2017, archaeologists working on a small island called Tocchet made a discovery that brought modern scientific understanding in line with ancient folklore.
It was the remains of a human settlement, complete with fishing tools, spearheads for hunting and elaborate cooking pits. It was when the charcoal from those pits was analyzed that the archaeologists realized just how significant the site truly was. It dated back over 14000 years, making it the oldest known human settlement in North America. But for lovers of oral history, ancestral folklore and the narrative fibers that make us who we are, it's confirmation of something else. Sometimes the stories we tell actually turn out to be true.
In fact, it was the legends about those ancient communities that drew the researchers to the island in the first place, which is something I can't help but get excited about because it shows just how valuable our collective folklore truly is, and that if we treat stories with respect and give them the benefit of the doubt, they have the potential to unlock forgotten pieces of our past. And you probably don't need me to tell you that that's a good thing. Oftentimes, all we have left of a culture or period in history are the stories they left behind.
It's as if the cathedral is gone, but the shadows are still on the grass where it once stood. And if we work real hard and follow the clues, we can use those remnants to piece it all back together again. But despite victories like those on Tocchet Island, some journeys into history are more dangerous because while legends might offer us a window into the past, we have no control over the things we might learn. Folklore might hold a new detail that could unlock our understanding of who our ancestors really were.
But it can also reveal something else our failures, our flaws, and the less savory aspects of human nature. Folklore contains powerful stories, for sure, but it also holds something darker. The truth about who we are. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. It's hard to imagine a richer landscape than the Pacific Northwest, seemingly endless miles of ocean lined by green forests and dark soil. It almost has a primordial aspect to it. And that beauty has a way of drawing you in.
If you look at a map of the west coast of British Columbia, the thing that's most obvious is just how many islands there are in the grand scheme of things. Trócaire Island and its neighbors are minuscule examples of that. But farther south toward the American border is the granddaddy of them all, Vancouver Island. It's a place most of us have probably heard of. I'm sure at a little over 12000 square miles of Vancouver Island is about the size of the American state of Maryland, but home to only 870000 people.
But while modern life is centered around the city of Victoria and its surrounding area, there's so much more to the island story. Obviously, the history of the place stretches far back into the distant past with various first nation peoples having lived there. In fact, historians believe that more than 50 unique tribes were scattered across the island before European settlers arrived in the late seventeen hundreds. They were like the ancient settlements on Croquette Island communities built mostly around hunting and fishing and all the aspects of life that came with it.
But Europeans changed all of that in 1774, Spain sent a number of expeditions up the Pacific Coast to explore the area, even establishing a small settlement. But four years later, the British arrived when Captain James Cook sailed along the coast, kicking off decades of arguments about which European country could lay claim to the island. In 1792, the British government sent a representative to negotiate with the Spanish for a while, it seemed like war would break out between the two nations over the dispute.
But in the end, it was the British who took ownership. By 1794, the island had a new name taken from the name of the man who had negotiated on behalf of the British. George Vancouver. After that, the island acted like a lot of the North American territory controlled by the British by providing natural resources that could be traded elsewhere. About half a century after taking control, the Hudson Bay Company arrived and set up a trading post where the modern day city of Victoria stands now.
And they came with a mission to attract settlers and grow the population.
What drew most of the people to the island early on was a fever that had gripped much of the west coast of North America at the time gold. And for a while, the gold mining industry was central to the economy of the place, but it was temporary. And there's evidence all over Vancouver Island of that in the form of ghost towns. One good example is Cape Scott, it was settled in 1896 by two Danish fishermen at the northwest tip of the island.
They had originally come for the gold, but that quickly proved to be too challenging for them. And they fell back on fishing, much like the First Nations people who had lived there before them. Over the years, a number of others joined them there and the community peaked at around 75 families, but this place was about as isolated as you could get. There wouldn't even be a paved road connecting them to the rest of the island until 1910. Combined with the harsh weather and difficult landscape, things began to turn against them.
By the late 1930s, the settlement was all but empty. And then there's a town situated about 25 miles due west of Victoria. It originally started as the campsite of one man, Lieutenant Peter Leach of the Royal Engineers, who had followed rumours of gold into the interior of the island. And he was successful to within months, hundreds of other prospectors flocked to the site, turning it into a full fledged town almost overnight. All of a sudden, each town was born with half a dozen general stores, a few hotels and three dozen saloons, basically if it was a business that could benefit from the search for gold that popped up in each town and for a while it worked.
But within a year, the gold dried up and with it the economy. Today, the bones of each town are still there, hidden in the grass and trees of the valley. Visitors can see remnants of old wood cabins, but there's a lot of stuff there that's not original. You see, back in the early days of the Great Depression, people tried to open the mines back up. And while those efforts failed as well, the machinery they brought in to do the work is still there, slowly vanishing within the forests embrace.
But those aren't the only remnants of the past on Vancouver Island, as we've already discussed. Sometimes you have to look in places that are more difficult to see what the human eye, because while the island might not have a lot of communities, it has more than its fair share of legends. But like the landscape that contains them, those stories are wild and untamed. And if they're true, they are more than a little terrifying.
It was the gold that brought them North Adelaide and Benjamin had made the long and dangerous journey up the western coast of North America, leaving the warmth of San Francisco behind for the lush forests of Vancouver Island. Ever since word of gold had found its way to California in 1858, people had been migrating north in search of a better life and a chance to make it big. This young couple would have been one of hundreds, if not thousands, who were flooding into the ports of Victoria.
They must have felt equal parts, excitement and fear to be one of so many others looking for the very same thing. They decided that rather than chase the gold themselves, it would be better to stay in Victoria and open a business that all those gold diggers would love. It was called the Boomerang in and Saloon. And as you can imagine, business was very good for a while. But in the fall of 1861, Adelaide became sick with typhus and quickly passed away, leaving Benjamin alone in a land that was still not quite home.
She had left him, but at the stories are true. It wouldn't be for long. In December of that same year, someone visiting the Quadro Street, burying ground, claimed to see her standing in the darkness, her pale figure clothed in a white dress before vanishing into the shadows. Some say her heartbroken husband took that as a sign that she wanted to speak with him and that he spent years inside Sants rooms trying to do so.
But those are stories that are difficult to prove. In the years since the demolition of the boomerang in sightings of Adelaide have moved from the cemetery to the location of her former business, and even today there are ghost tours in the city that will take you there to tell you the story and leave you with more than a few chills. But Adelaide isn't the only woman and white that's said to haunt Victoria. Those who share the legend of the April bride tend to do so in a whisper.
They say it began in 1936 when a young nurse named Doris Graveling agreed to meet her estranged husband, Victor, for a conversation at night on the beach at the southeastern tip of Victoria. Honestly, could there be a more obvious set up? Doris went missing after that night's, although to be fair, so did Victor. A few believed that they'd run away together, but most suspected foul play.
Five days later, in late September, Doris's body was found on a nearby golf course. A couple of weeks after that, Victus body was also discovered there just at a different hole. Local authorities ruled it a murder suicide and then life went on.
But ever since the story suggests that life did everything but move on every spring for a couple of weeks in April, they say, Doris returns to the location where her corpse was found. Early reports came from random locals who happened to see her or fishermen passing by the golf course in their boats.
Later on, though, as the rumor spread, those witnesses came to include local teenagers who specifically went looking for her each spring. What they found was always the same to the vision of a pale woman dressed in white standing in the darkness. While most people over the years have made a hasty retreat after spotting her, a few have tried to get closer. According to those stories, Doris is said to have chased them away, her arms stretched out toward them, as if running to a lover.
One last story in November of 1886, while on a trip to Alaska, the Catholic archbishop of Vancouver Island, Charles John Sager's, was murdered. The killer immediately confessed, was tried and found guilty and then sent to prison. But the archbishop's body didn't immediately return home to Victoria. In fact, it wouldn't be until November of 1888, two years later, when he was finally laid to rest inside St. Andrew's Cathedral, which was still under construction at the time.
When his body came home, though, so did legends, one claims that despite the two years between death and burial, the archbishop's body had barely decayed, all except for his face, which, as the story goes, had been eaten by mice inside the coffin.
Again, that's the legend with not a lot of facts to back it up.
It helps us understand just how fertile this man's story was for new offshoots and superstitions.
But it also explains the events that took place just two years later, because that's when a second murder took place, this time just outside the cathedral. It seems that a local man named David Phee was attending the Christmas Eve mass in 1890 and then left to attend a party with friends, because of that, he was wearing a white coat, which must have helped them stand out against the darkness of the late evening. But when another man spotted him moving through the yard between the old and new cathedrals, he grabbed his rifle and fired a shot at the pale figure.
David Fee passed away almost instantly from the gun wound and his killer turned himself in a short while later. His reason for shooting a man that he didn't know or have contact with, according to him, it was an act of self-defense because he thought he'd spotted the ghost of Archbishop Sager's. Legends are slippery creatures, they can lure us in with pieces of fact, dressed in fiction, and then drive us to believe the most irrational of things. A Vancouver Island has an older tale to tell, one that's been whispered along the shores there for more than a thousand years.
It's not the details that are the most frightening aspect of this legend, though, but what the events of the past two centuries have revealed. Because if we connect the dots and follow the evidence, we are forced to wrestle with a terrifying conclusion. This story, you see. Just might be true. They had talked about it for generations. In fact, the various indigenous people, groups of the area, each had their own names for it. They were names that instilled fear and became characters in traditional stories that were passed around the island.
But even so, it was the description that made it terrifying. Among them, innocent people on the western end of Vancouver Island, the creature's name literally translates as he who moves by wriggling from side to side. Another first nation culture described it as like a snake, even adding that this creature had long hair on its back and head and could sometimes even have wings. There's even physical evidence that backs up the stories. Researchers have found a number of petroglyphs, ancient stone carvings that depict a long, thin creature with a head like a snake, a man of hair and appendages that look either like wings or flippers, depending on how you interpret the images.
And as if that weren't enough, back in 1939, researchers in nearby Washington discovered a seventeen hundred year old spear thrower, a device known as an atlatl that was carved to resemble a man's head with a serpent like creature on top. And right there on its back are what appeared to be wings or fins. Obviously, this creature, its shape, its features have all been part of the folklore of the region for a very long time. When Europeans arrived in the late seventeen hundreds, they brought changes to a lot of life there.
Obviously they moved in and took over indigenous land and they brought new technology and new ways of life to the island. But they also brought fresh eyes to see and explore the land. And so it's no surprise that they started to notice things that left them wondering. In October of 1791, a trading ship stopped at the western tip of Vancouver Island, part of their fur hunting efforts while the crew was on the shore near an inlet. They looked out into the ocean waves and spotted something incredible.
They described it as very large with a longneck, large mouth and sharp teeth. One of the traders mentioned their experience to one of the indigenous people they worked with, and the man told them that they had witnessed high click, a deity described as having the head of a dog and the body of a giant snake. And it wouldn't be the last sighting like that either. Nearly a century later, in 1863, a similar creature was spotted in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the city of Vancouver on the mainland all through the 80s, more and more sightings trickled in and they were all eerily similar to long necks, snake like bodies, dark skin and heads that resemble dogs or horses.
But I have to stop us for a moment because sea creatures are something we've discussed here before. If we just read the descriptions of this particular creature and ignore the rest, we might miss a pattern to the various sightings in North America. And the pattern hints at something more concrete than we'd like to admit. Other mysterious water creatures we've covered include one off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and another in Lake Champlain. And a common description by witnesses of both of those was that they had heads like a horse, dark skin and long serpent like bodies.
So, yes, while it's exciting to hear stories about a sea creature off the coast of Vancouver Island, it's all the more incredible when those descriptions line up with sightings an entire continent away. What that all means, though, is still a mystery. But then something happened that gave all of these stories new life. A whaling vessel working in Queen Charlotte Sound to the northwest of Vancouver Island found something inside the belly of a sperm whale. They had captured it looking for ambergris, a waxy deposit that was used in, of all things, perfume, and that required cutting open the whale stomach.
What they found inside, though, terrified them. It was the corpse of a creature that measured roughly 10 feet in length with a long serpent like tail. And ahead they described as dog or horse like. But this wasn't 1791. It was 1937, an era with cameras and scientific labs that could do deeper studies. So photos were taken and the remains were sent to a nearby museum. The trouble was the museum's curator of vertebrates was out of town at the time, so the only person who looked at the corpse was the resident taxidermist who, however skilled at their job they were, wasn't a scientist after pronouncing the remains to be that of a Bailen whale.
They were destroyed rather than wait for the proper curator to return. Ever since, those who have studied the photographs and sketches of the remains have kept the mystery alive. Most believe that the creature in the photos was not a Bailen well, although they haven't made a definitive declaration about what it actually was either to this day. That's a question that still hasn't been answered. Of course, while we're waiting for a name and classification for the creature, enterprising folks have tried to help out.
By the early 1930s, people were already referring to it by a very scientific sounding name, although no one's really sure where that name came from. All through that decade, newspapers published, citing after sighting, always referring to the creature as a Cadbury's saurus named after Cadbury Bay off the east coast of Victoria. To locals, though, it quickly became easier to just call the thing Katti. And it stuck ever since. Today, just like the Gloucester Sea serpent or champ of Lake Champlain, Cati is a fixture of Vancouver Island, it's part monster, part mascot's and 100 percent mystery.
But it's more than that, too, because regardless of whether it's an actual undiscovered animal or simply a centuries old thread in the fabric of local culture, Katti represents the power of story. And as long as we keep an open mind and our eyes on the sea, there's always the chance that the truth will rise to the surface. But if it does, let's just hope that it's friendly. Our world is constantly changing cultures and languages and the cities we call home, all of it evolves over time.
Sometimes things get better, like medical science or communication technology, while other times they break down. But through it all, one thing will always be a constant for us story. The tales we tell have a way of lasting beyond the moment. Maybe that's because we consider our stories to be precious. Or perhaps it's because we know deep down they hold some grain of truth that needs to be preserved. Not everyone can build a time capsule to fill with artifacts from our lives, but story can do all of that and more.
At the risk of mixing metaphors, the stories we share are a lot like pearls, they can be beautiful and attractive, but they are largely made up of the material designed to make that tiny grain of truth at the center more palatable and comforting. Stories can be entertaining and fun or thrilling and intense, but it's always good to stop and ask what bit of truth are they hiding? And Vancouver Island is home to many of those types of story, whether or not the ghost of Doris Graveline actually appears each April on that windswept golf course along the sea.
The story does a fantastic job of preserving an actual event that would have otherwise been forgotten over time. Doris was real and so was her murder. So when I read stories about mysterious sea creatures like Cadie, I have mixed feelings like you, I am thoroughly entertained by the notion that there are undiscovered animals out there appearing just often enough to arouse suspicion and create rumors. But I'm also cautiously pessimistic. After all, tales of sea creatures sound a lot more like legend than fact.
As I mentioned earlier, Catie's heyday was the 1930s, while the mysterious carcass was discovered in 1937, sitings appeared in the local paper, The Victoria Daily Times, off and on for years before that. In fact, the very first time Katti is mentioned in print is in October of 1933, nearly four years prior to the discovery of those unusual remains.
But if we dig deeper for the truth, there just might be something at the center of it all, you see, before Carrie got its name and before the newspaper talked constantly about it, there was another article published six months earlier that may have started at all. That article wasn't published in the Victoria Daily Times, though, in fact, it wasn't even published in North America. But six months was more than enough time to allow it to find its way to the Pacific Northwest and a community that was primed and ready by centuries of folklore.
The newspaper article was written by a man named Alex Campbell for the May 2nd, 1933 issue of the Inverness Courier. It was about something weird and unusual that had been spotted in a local body of water there, a sighting that turned out to be the very first modern reports of a creature that is universally known today and quite possibly the inspiration for Vancouver Island's ever elusive cati. Scotland's very own. Loch Ness Monster. Vancouver Island might be one small slice of the world, but it's disproportionately filled with all sorts of amazing tales from sea monsters and ghost towns to a whole collection of ladies and whites.
There are very few places one can go without bumping into stories from the past. And if you stick around after this brief sponsor break, I'll tell you about one more of my absolute favorites. This episode of law was made possible by Stamps.com this holiday season, more people than ever before will be mailing stuff, and that means the post office is going to be busy and you don't have time for that. Stamps.com brings the post office and now UPS shipping right to your computer, mail and ship anything from the convenience of your home or office.
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Robert Dunsmuir was born in Scotland way back in 1825. He started out his work life in coal mines operated by the Hudson Bay Company following the work to Vancouver Island around 1851. As one mine would be exhausted, the team would pack up and move on to a new location. But life was hard and the money wasn't good. When his contract with a company expired in 1854, he decided to stay on the island but pursue coal mining on his own, he essentially made the leap into freelancing.
And with it came all the feast and famine. One might expect a Robert stuck with it for years, hoping for the big break that would change his life.
That big break arrived in October of sixty nine, Robert had taken the day off to do some fishing, but his eyes were constantly examining his surroundings for signs of coal, and that's when he spotted it, a rich, abundant outcropping of black gold. He quickly went to the local authorities and staked his claim, taking control of a massive stretch of land. And then he got to work. Within four years, Roberts Coal Company represented 40 percent of Vancouver Island's entire industry, two years after that, his output had tripled.
A decade later, his annual profit was close to 12 million dollars.
And American money, to put it simply, Robert was rich in the late 80s. He put some of that money to use in the construction of a new home for he and his wife, Joan. His vision was to have his own Victorian mansion, the sort that Scottish nobility back home would have built and no expense would be spared when it was completed.
The final bill was estimated to have been around half a million dollars, roughly 11 million today, and had 39 rooms spread across 25000 square feet of living space stained glass windows, ornate stonework and an enormous oak staircase all added a level of opulence to the house that few could match.
And it's absolutely stunning. Just do a search for Craig Derra Castle and you'll see what I mean. But Robert never lived to see it. He passed away in April of 1889, about 17 months before construction was completed. So when his widow, Joanne, moved in at the end of 1890, it must have been a bittersweet moment. All that beauty in space. But no Robert to share it with. But tragedy, was it finished with the house?
It seems the architect responsible for the home, Warren Haywood Williams, also died before it was finished. And once the family moved in, that darkness came for them. Two of the couple's 10 children, both daughters, passed away inside that house and their wealth began to slowly fade away. After Joan passed away in 1988, the castle was sold to a developer who parcelled off the 28 acres of land for new homes. One lucky builder won the mansion in a raffle, of all things, but almost immediately lost his fortune in a bad business deal.
And it was hard for the people of Victoria to watch a story like that play out and not imagine the place to be cast.
Today, Craig Jaroch Castle is a museum and thousands of visitors walk through its many rooms and climb those beautiful oak stairs every year. But if the rumors are true, tourists aren't the only thing roaming the halls there. Many visitors to the place have reported seeing the ghostly figure of a young woman in the basement of the mansion. They say she doesn't move or speak, but simply stands in a corner, eyes pointed at the cold stone floor. A few people have speculated that she is Agnes, Robert's daughter, who passed away shortly after him.
But Agnes died before the house was completed. So how her ghost made it into the basement will probably never know. Upstairs, though, on that ornate oak staircase, some visitors have seen another spectral woman, they claim that she walks the stairs between the third and fourth floors and is typically only noticed out of the corner of their eye. When people turn their heads to get a better look, ghostly figure is said to vanish. And look, I know it's easy to want to fill historic homes like Craig Derra Castle with all sorts of tales and legends.
The cold opulence and tragic past of the place almost seems to invite those types of stories in.
But whether or not those reports are accurate or that the tales of haunted basements and staircases are actually true, they certainly help us remember the people who once lived there. And that's the part of folklore that I absolutely love. It gives it a power that few other traditions can match, because if we look hard enough at any story, there's bound to be a grain of truth. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Megan de Roche and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast.
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