Regular readers of this blog will know that in the summer, I usually spend some time here on Prince Edward Island, the smallest Canadian province, located off the coast of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
PEI can actually claim to be the birthplace of the nation that we now know as Canada. In September 1864, the Atlantic provinces – Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland – organized a conference to discuss a union among themselves. There was already a British North American province called Canada, comprising Quebec, Ontario and other areas, and the Governor General asked for an invitation to the talks “to ascertain whether the proposed Union might not be made to embrace the whole of British North American Provinces.”
According to reports, Governor General Monck and the rest of Canada’s most prominent politicians journeyed down the Saint Lawrence River on a 191-ton steamer with $13,000-worth of champagne in its hold, to attend the conference in Charlottetown, PEI. No wonder they all look a bit ill in this painting of the event.
Even so, the island is probably more famous as the setting of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables.
I’ve been coming to the island for a long time now, and I love listening to stories told by fishing folk, farmers and other great and possibly unreliable storytellers.
There are, for example, various stories about the ghost ships that are regularly seen off the shores. I particularly enjoyed a story about how two of the ghost ships collided. The raconteur was a slow-talking student, who used high-rise terminals (the pronunciation habit that makes every statement sounds like a question) at the end of each line of the story.
“So, like the two boats .. um… collided? And … they sank? And the ghost sailors … um … drowned? And they came back as … um … like ghosts of ghosts?”
“What are ghosts of ghosts like?” I asked.
‘Um … like ghosts? Only …um … paler?”
However, the story that I found MOST unlikely was about an actor named Charles Coghlan.
Coghlan was born in Prince Edward Island in 1841 to one of the many Irish families who had migrated here. The family was poor but he was clearly a bright pupil at school and neighbours helped his parents pay for him to get a good education. His father was hoping that he would become a lawyer, but young Charles dismayed his family by announcing that he wanted to be an actor. His father disowned him and he left home. He and his father never spoke again.
He not only left the island, he left Canada and began his acting career in London. It seems that he made his first appearance on the London stage in 1860, when he would have been only 19. Reports suggest that he became one of the leading actors at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
In 1878, he went to seek fame and fortune in the USA, and worked there for the rest of his career. All the while, news of his theatrical success was relayed back to Prince Edward Island, where his exploits became front page news in the island’s press.
In his fifties, Coghlan put together a touring theatre company and travelled the United States performing classics of contemporary American theatre, with some Shakespeare thrown in for good measure for measure (sorry, shocking pun).
However, the workload became a little too much for him, and he died on stage in Galveston Texas on 27th November 1899, at the age of 58.
So far, so what? I hear you all say. But read on, and you’ll see why I was skeptical about this story…
Coghlan was buried in a Galveston cemetery. In 1900, nearly a year after his death, the city was struck by a terrible hurricane which killed six thousand people. It destroyed buildings, ripped up ancient trees as if they were matchsticks and uncovered graves.
Along with many others, Coghlan’s coffin was washed out into the Gulf of Mexico by the floods that followed the hurricane.
And now the unbelievable bit….
The story goes that the coffin drifted around the Florida Keys into the Atlantic Ocean, and then up the eastern seaboard of the United States, carried by one branch of the Gulf Stream. Eight years later, it was found by fishermen off the coast of Prince Edward Island.
The fishermen first of all hauled the wooden box onto their boat, then realized it was a coffin. They scraped the barnacles off the plaque and saw the name of one of the island’s most famous sons.
One version of the story suggests that Coghlan had once visited a fortune teller who told him that he would become very famous but die in the prime of his career. His soul would never rest until it was buried in his homeland of Prince Edward Island.
So it proved. Coghlan had finally come home. His body was re-buried near the small church where he had been christened as a baby.
The fortune teller bit is probably hokum, of course. But the part of the story that always bothered me was the fact that the hurricane could have ‘uncovered graves’. Someone then told me that Coghlan had been interred in a mausoleum above ground, but I was still skeptical – it sounded a rather grand way to bury even a famous actor.
So in 2002, my wife Dede and I went to Galveston Texas to find out more.
Actually, that’s over-stating it a bit. We DID go to Galveston, but we didn’t just go to find out about the story.
Dede had spent six weeks working in a community college in Houston, after which we drove to New Orleans to meet some friends, listen to some music and generally hang out. On our way back, we stopped in Galveston.
It was Thanksgiving Day and the streets were almost deserted. We found a diner that was open and sat at a table by the window. We were the only customers and eventually a woman came to take our order. She was – how can I put this – a mature woman, with rather wild dyed blonde hair, held at the back by an extravagant clip with a huge artificial yellow flower. She was wearing a skimpy white Mexican blouse and brown suede hot pants. In November.
More to the point, she couldn’t understand a word I said. She hadn’t a clue what I wanted when I asked for ‘fizzy mineral water’, for example. She clearly thought we were a very suspicious couple indeed, travelling on Thanksgiving Day.
She became even more suspicious when I called her over and asked my next question:
“Do you know where the cemetery is?”
Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. You could see she was toying with the idea of calling the cops.
“You want what?” she asked.
“There are lots of cemeteries in Galveston.”
Dede tried to help.
“We’re looking for a really old one,” she said. “One that was built in Victorian times.”
Once we’d established that ‘Victorian times’ meant ‘a long time ago’, she became more helpful. We finished our meal and set off to find the cemetery that she indicated.
It was a beautiful and peaceful place with lots of trees, and there was a plaque at the entrance which referred back to the 1900 hurricane.
And as soon as you enter the place, you know that the Coghlan coffin story makes sense.
As we looked around, we saw that everyone who is buried there is actually interred in an above-ground mausoleum, some grand, but most of them quite modest. Why? Because large areas of the city have water just below the surface of the land. If you dig a metre into the soil, you reach water. No one gets buried underground in Galveston.
So the story finally made sense to me. And, as if by magic, the next time I went to the island, probably the following summer, I discovered that a museum in the tourist resort of Cavendish (home of Anne of Green Gables) had opened a special exhibit dedicated to the story of Charles Coghlan.
So all I have to do now is to track down some of those ghost sailors…