Ghost scene at the fort — “nightly vigil of sentries made hideous by apparition”

by Bruce Cherney

The militiamen of the Canadian Mounted Rifles at Lower Fort Garry were spooked. Several days earlier, an apparition had made its first appearance. Subsequently, any soldier on sentry duty was filled with dread that they would be visited by the eerie spectre.

Ghost Scene at the Fort: Nightly Vigils of the Sentries Made Hideous by an Apparition, read the headline in the August 29, 1903, Morning Telegram. The newspaper said “panic had seized the soldiers” at the fort as a result of the haunting.

“The first owners of the Red River Valley are resenting the intrusion of the Mounted Rifles upon the grounds sacred to their dead and making their displeasure severely felt,” the newspaper continued.

A lone soldier on sentry duty outside the militia camp had been the first to be visited by the apparition. At midnight one night, he saw a Red River cart drawn by a team of oxen passing his post. In the cart were a Métis man and woman (referred to as half-breeds in the article which was the common vernacular of the period among whites).

According to the newspaper, the cart passed the sentry’s station several times between midnight and 2 a.m.

“Finally the sentry became suspicious that the midnight drivers were not there for any good. As a sentry should, he therefore stepped over the fence and ordered them to halt. At his words, (the) cart drivers disappeared in the air.

“The guard stopped dead still and after reasoning with himself for some time finally persuaded his hair to return to its natural position on his head. He blamed his digestion and the regimental cook for the trouble.”

Although he had momentarily calmed his nerves, the sentry received another fright when the same apparition returned. He repeated the order to halt and the cart and its passengers again vanished into the air.

At this point, the sentry dropped his gun and in “sheer terror” ran to the guard house.

When he told his comrades about the ghostly visitation, they erupted into laughter. A night later, his comrades were less amused. That night the apparition returned while another sentry was on duty. This time the soldiers regarded the appearance of the spectre more seriously and reported the sighting to officers.

“A plan was at once evolved to try and either capture the errant spirits or at least soothe their wrath and injured feelings, but with no success, and almost nightly the wraith pursued its lonely midnight parade.”

The soldiers developed their own theory behind the otherworldly visitations, including the belief that “the wraith” was from a nearby cemetery. They felt “the ghostly visitor is taking this means of showing displeasure at the desecration of the graves, many of which have been levelled off and destroyed through the process of time and the advance of civilization.”

Today, the actual location of the cemetery cited in the 1903 article remains as much a mystery as the reported apparition.

Ken Green, the manager of communications and visitor activities at Lower Fort Garry for Parks Canada, said there is no evidence of a cemetery close to the national historic site.

He said there are three possibilities for the cemetery near Lower Fort Garry (commonly referred to over the years as the Stone Fort): Little Britain United Church, PTH 9 and Little Britain Road, built between 1872 and 1874 and a kilometre to the south; St. Andrew’s on the Red, 3 St. Andrews Road to the west, the oldest stone church in Western Canada and built between 1845 and 1849; or the St. Clements Cemetery, 6159 Hwy. 9A, to the north.

One cemetery is shown on a plan of Lower Fort Garry drawn by B.A. Everitt in August 1926 and printed in May 1928 for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which built the post between 1831 and 1839. The plan  shows the “supposed position of burial ground of soldiers of Wolseley expedition” across today’s highway and just northwest of the fort. 

Green said archaeological digs have yet to uncover evidence of the existence of the “supposed” cemetery. 

Even if it did exist, the fact that the cemetery was for soldiers originally from Eastern Canada (arriving in August 1870 with Col. Garnet Wolseley in the aftermath of the Red River Resistance) does not explain the apparition of a Red River cart containing a Métis man and woman. The soldiers from Eastern Canada were not Métis, although aboriginal and Métis guides did assist Wolseley and his troops in finding their way to Upper Fort Garry. By the time the British troops and Canadian militiamen arrived  in Fort Garry, Louis Riel had fled across the river to St. Boniface. The militiamen, intent upon avenging the execution of Orangeman Thomas Scott on March 4, 1870, by the Riel-led provisional government, probably began to regard Riel as a ghost since he continually eluded their pursuit.

It is evident that the newspaper report refers to a cemetery lost to modern memory that had been reserved specifically for the “first owners” of the land. The reference to “first owners” could imply the “ground sacred to their dead” was a burial place initially used by aboriginal people and later in conjunction with  Métis in the vicinity.

The Canadian Mounted Rifles were originally formed as a militia unit for service in the South African (Boer) War in 1901. Although the militia unit was called the Canadian Mounted Rifles, Manitoba-based elements of the Canada-wide regiment — B, C, D, E and F squadrons —  on July 1, 1903, were reformed as the 12th Manitoba Dragoons with headquarters in Brandon. During this

period, the rural-based cavalry regiment commonly held its annual summer exercises at Lower Fort Garry.

Green said photos from the era show the militia members stayed in tents in a field located to the south of the fort. 

There were three militia regiments at the time: the 90th Winnipeg Rifles and the 13th Field Battery based in the city and the Canadian Mounted Rifles (the name persisted in newspaper accounts despite the reorganization). Periodically, the three regiments joined for a parade in Winnipeg. In July 1903, the combined force under the command of Col. Evans, CB, assembled at Upper Fort Garry and marched down Main Street to the new CPR depot at Higgins and Main. From the railway station, the parade proceeded down Main to Portage and Kennedy and finally to the militia drill hall on Broadway.

The Morning Telegram reported that 50 men of the Canadian Mounted Rifles took part in the combined parade under the leadership of Capt. Mackie, DSO.

Such parades were popular and attracted hundreds of spectators.

Lower Fort Garry was not the only site of visits from “ghosties and long-leggety beasties, and things that go bump in the night” in 1903. On September 11, the Telegram reported on the presence of a spectre clad in fluttering white undergarments haunting St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery. The graveyard ghoul became visible whenever the moon came out from behind a cloud and cast an eerie glow.

One woman was said to have fainted at the sight of the spectre in the cemetery.

Even in 1903, St. John’s on Anderson Avenue in the North End  had a long history in Winnipeg. It was founded as the first Protestant church (Anglican) in the Red River Settlement in 1822 by Rev. John West. Over the years, the cathedral has undergone many structural changes. The present  form of the cathedral dates to 1926 and is noted for its stained glass windows. 

The age of its cemetery — it predates the cathedral and was used as early as 1812 — and the fact that many missionaries and prominent citizens were buried in the graveyard perhaps contributed to a healthy dose of speculation on the true nature of the moonlit apparition.

“Have you heard anything new about the watcher among the graves,” was apparently a common opening for conversations among residents of the parish.

William Binzier, the sexton of St. John’s churchyard, heard the reports which he “took with a grain of salt.”  The skeptical sexton did not believe in “spectral visitations” or “ghostly friends.” 

But as the tales became widespread among local residents, Binzier began to feel there might be some foundation to the reports. To discover the truth behind the “watcher,” Binzier one night took up a strategic hiding place behind a clump of bushes in the graveyard. 

He stifled a yawn as the city hall clock tolled 11 p.m. and began to think the stories had been concocted simply for amusement. In fact, Binzier began to believe that a great joke was being played on him.

“At the witching hour of midnight he yawned again. The night was cold, so he determined to go home. He started for the gate. As he did so the moon came from behind a large black cloud, and, scarcely ten feet from him, a figure stood by a grave clad only in a single white garment. The moon was again enveloped by another black cloud, leaving only the motionless white form and the grave stones, dimly visible. His courage almost deserted him, but the moon again shone out and revealed the figure of a real live man.”

After swallowing a lump in his throat, Binzier approached the very alive man and asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I have no place to sleep and am too sick to work,” the man replied, “so I brought my blankets here to lie in peace.”

“Well, this is no place for you,” Binzier said. “You must find somewhere else to sleep.”

While Binzier watched, the man hurriedly dressed himself, got his camping gear together and spirited himself off to St. John’s Park where he spent the remainder of the night and every night thereafter trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Binzier proved the man, who “showed up with ghastly distinctiveness” each time the moon came out, was just a homeless person whose chalky white  spectral countenance was the result of a serious illness. It was a case of a ghostly appearance and clothes normally associated with troubled spirits contributing to rumours of a spectre taking up residence in the graveyard. It also showed how overactive imaginations can jump to irrational conclusions.

Reports of apparitions haunting the city and the surrounding countryside helped Winnipeg earn a reputation as one of the best places to communicate with dead spirits. At a time when spiritualism was gaining a following, Winnipeg became famous around the world for its mediums and researchers into the paranormal.

Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton was considered one of the more gifted psychic researchers of the era. His delving into the paranormal attracted the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the renowned literary character Sherlock Holmes. The world-famous writer visited Winnipeg, arriving on Dominion Day (now Canada Day), July 1, 1923, to spread the spiritualism message and take part in a number of séances, including one at the Henderson Highway home of Dr. Hamilton. 

At the Walker Theatre, 1,800 people came to hear Doyle speak, although it can’t be determined how many came to hear about spiritualism or were simply hoping Doyle would discuss Sherlock Holmes. Whomever wanted to hear about the adventures of the great sleuth and his sidekick Dr. Watson went away disappointed — Doyle devoted his time on stage to a discourse on spiritualism. In fact, it was the royalties he earned for Sherlock Holmes books that allowed him to travel the world and preach about spiritualism.

In his book, Our Second Adventure to America, Doyle expressed enthusiasm about the psychic manifestations during Winnipeg séances.

He wrote the city “stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possibilities. There are several Spiritualist churches and a number of local mediums of good repute.”

Both Dr. Hamilton and  Doyle went to their graves as true believers in spiritualism. Doyle was so committed to the cause that he told a Winnipeg Evening Tribune reporter, “Spiritualism will have swept the globe before the younger generation of today passes ... The day when it was held to ridicule with the talk of spooks is passed.”

Yet, the Tribune reporter did consider spiritualism a subject meriting ridicule. The reporter wrote that the day’s headline probably would be “Throngs Enter into Spirit of Dominion Day,” but the presence of Doyle on the nation’s birthday warranted the headline “Spirits Enter Throng on Dominion Day.”

It would have helped historical researchers today if the séance held at Dr. Hamilton’s home with the medium Elizabeth Poole had shed some light upon the mysterious apparition that appeared at Lower Fort Garry in 1903. It’s too bad the infamous Miss Poole hadn’t contacted the Métis man and woman to discover why they had been haunting the sentries, or where the cemetery holding their earthly remains was located. That would have been a good ghost story for Hallowe’en.