Ghostly tales abound in BC, and like most ghost stories, many have at least an element of truth to them — there has to be a reason for people to associate a place or a person with ghostly goings on. I’m not generally a believer in visitations from the other realm, but I think the history of a place influences the tales that might arise — and I love a creepy story, whether truth or fiction!
Reaching across the divide
Perceptions of the afterlife have changed over the centuries — we have the late-Victorians, the Great War and the 1918 pandemic to thank for the explosion of spiritualists, seances, ghostly sightings and ghost stories as people grasped for some connection with those they had lost. It’s no coincidence that ghost stories exploded as a genre at this historical point along with the advent of mass publishing (think penny dreadfuls).
Stories of ghosts are not exclusively Victorian! Shakespeare had several famous spirits and ghosts stories go back to the earliest written works and were present in oral traditions too. Almost every culture has its version of ghostly tales, so whether you believe in ghosts or not, they’ve been inspiring imaginations for millennia. Between dark histories and explaining the inexplicable it’s no wonder that we have a penchant for tales that make the spine tingle.
Truth and strange fiction make the best stories
The settler history of BC’s West Coast coincides neatly with the historically documented surge in belief in spirits manifesting themselves when called or on their own terms. There’s nearly always a kernel of truth to a place’s reputation as a spiritual haunt, but what happens between the historical truth and the ghostly tale that develops? BC’s past has some chilling stories that have some real truth and one or two ghosts that seem to get around — a lot.
With so many haunted locations to visit throughout BC, it’s hard to choose — that’s where folks like John Adams and his son Chris come in. If you want to take a ghostly tour of Victoria, check out Discover the Past for a walking tour like no other. Find out first-hand about the darker side of Victoria’s past — and decide for yourself if you believe or not…
To explore more of Vancouver’s ghostly goings-on, check out Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours and learn about the darker side of history.
As I did some reading, I found connections from one story to the next that appeared — perhaps guided by a hand from the other realm… How very Edgar Allan Appropoe.
Some spooky spots with a smattering of ectoplasm
Bastion Square in Victoria is a good place to start. BC’s capital city is known as BC’s most haunted, and with good reason. There are ghosts everywhere. Bastion Square is a place that always gives me a feeling of disquiet, despite it’s lovely open space and beautiful buildings. When there’s a good sea mist rolling in, it becomes distinctly Dickensian!
But here’s the catch — every single building around it hosts a poltergeist or two, so I’m told. The Old Court House is the centre piece and is well known as haunted. There are reports of objects flying around, unseen hands pushing people and strange whispers. Here, the history ties in with the stories — it was the site of the old prison and the gallows. Hangings attracted a ghoulish, jeering crowd and many of the unclaimed bodies were buried on site — they’re still there.
A reputation given, not earned
A well-known local figure, Judge Mathew Baillie Begbie, presided over many trials in Victoria and elsewhere in BC, gaining a reputation as the “hanging judge.” But he was never known by that moniker in life — in fact he was opposed to the death penalty and even opposed combat. He often bought a final meal for the condemned at the Garrick’s Head Pub, which is, of course, haunted by its former owner, Mike Powers, who was brutally murdered over 100 years ago, in the wee hours of the morning. He was attacked from behind by two people, one of whom was reported to be a woman in men’s clothes, and he died four days later. He can be seen leaning against the mantle of his pub on chilly nights.
Despite Begbie’s personal views about the death penalty, he was constrained by the laws of the time — murder was punishable by death and trials were decided by the jury, not the judge. He often asked the jury for leniency but the law was the law.
So, the “hanging judge” nickname came after Begbie’s death, and through this misplaced moniker, he’s tied to many of BC’s ghosts. Unlike Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol, he’s not dragging the chains he forged in life, but the ones forged by others’ imaginations! He can be seen in his ghostly manifestation through the window of the old court house as well as several other locations in BC, most notably Barkerville — he is a ghost who gets around — and must cut a striking figure standing 6’7”!
Walking amongst the dead
Begbie is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, a typical European-style, Victorian burial ground with a stunning location. It seems an obvious choice for ghostly goings on, housing over 30,000 graves. You can pretty much take your pick of who might still be wandering about! The grave markers read like a Who’s Who of BC history — everyone from Sir James Douglas to Billy Barker lies beneath the sod.
Why so sad?
It’s a beautiful location, park-like, oceanside, treed, restful — or is it? The ghost of its namesake, Isabella Ross, BC’s first female landowner, stalks through the mist — she’s often sighted on foggy nights. I can’t find much that indicates that Isabella Ross was unhappy, but the farm wasn’t successful, so perhaps that’s why she gazes forlornly out to sea. No matter whom you seek to contact, the statuary on the graves creates the perfect setting for a foggy autumnal adventure to take in Victoria’s past.
A life cut short
David Fee’s death has links to Begbie and to Ross Bay. He was killed on Christmas Eve on the steps of St Andrew’s Cathedral in 1890 in a case of mistaken identity, politics and bravado. The murderer, Irish labourer Lawrence Whelan, was targeting someone else in political disagreements and was aiming to give his adversary a fright… he was drunk, and mistook one man for another based on dress. The gun he was holding, loaded with blanks, went off accidentally, and one tiny pellet was discharged. It made a hole right through Fee’s heart and he died on the Cathedral’s steps. Fee’s ghost appears as “circling mist” on the steps of the Cathedral or in Ross Bay Cemetery, and he has every reason to be unsettled, cut down as such a young man so needlessly.
Other sites around Victoria that feel apropos at Halloween include the famous Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown, any building designed by Francis Rattenbury, who elicited much scandal in is life, and who met a sticky end as a consequence of that scandal an ocean and a continent away.
Of course, like attracts like, and many other ghosts seem to wander the halls of Rattenbury’s creations — from the Empress Hotel and its thin, moustachioed man and elderly woman, to his old home on Beach Drive (Now Glenlyon Norfolk School) where several occurrences of ghostly goings on have been detected, to the Legislature, his most impressive work. Rattenbury himself is a trans-Atlantic ghost, making appearances at several different locales in Victoria, though he died in England.
Victoria boasts two castles, Craigdarroch and Hatley, both of which have ties to the Dunsmuir family. Hatley is said to be haunted by a woman, while Craigdaroch’s current owners eschew any notion of ghostly goings on in the Gothic structure, although there are those who would suggest otherwise! Even the famous Roger’s Chocolate Shop and the Victoria Golf Club have ghosts to call their own!
From the Island to the mainland
The old BC Penitentiary where Whelan was sent gives off that peculiar feeling of a dark past. At its peak, it housed nearly 800 prisoners. Almost all of the original buildings are gone now with the exception of the Gaol Building, which was built in 1877 (It was still in use as a penitentiary until 1980).
Right nearby is a place known for 70 years as Boot Hill which served as the final resting place for many convicted felons (totals differ) who died at the prison (only one was executed), occasionally under peculiar circumstances. The site was fenced off for many years, but since the redevelopment of the area, it’s been made accessible to the public again with its own historical marker. It bears no traditional grave markers, just stones set into the ground with no more than a number etched into the surface, a sad and anonymous end. There’s no avoiding the feeling of disquiet here.
Mourning the dead
Like Victoria, Vancouver’s historic Gastown has a largely unnoticed population. Gaoler’s Mews, with its cobbled street and brick edifice, instantly conjures the past! The building that sits there now was built after the Great Fire of Vancouver in 1886, but prior to that it housed Vancouver’s first public jail. Many men were hanged in the cobbled courtyard west of the building. Strangely, it’s not the spirits of the condemned who are the most famous, but that of a woman dressed in black who glides along the cobblestones from where the gallows stood. Perhaps she is mourning a lost love who died for his crimes.
Don’t mix your spirits!
Also in Gastown, The Old Spaghetti Factory is said to have several spirits to accompany your meal and not just the kind you mix! The restaurant houses a trolley car, first installed as a feature about 50 years ago, but it dates back to 1904. Over the years, many people have claimed to see a man dressed as a conductor in and around the trolley! No one seems to know who he is or how he died.
Another more ghoulish story is that of a lad named Edward with a penchant for bending cutlery, and like most children, he can’t help spinning round one of the columns in the restaurant! He also likes to play pranks, apparently scaring one employee so much running under a table and then glaring at her with eyeless sockets when she followed him!
Nearby, Waterfront Station, built by the CPR in 1915 is said to house several ghosts – some more pleasant than others. A woman in a flapper dress dancing alone to 1920s music seems benign enough even if she does disappear, as do the three elderly ladies waiting for their train, but the ghost of a headless brakeman known in life as Hub Clark, who now wanders along the tracks north of the building, is creepy and rooted in known fact.
In 1928, Hub slipped and fell, knocking himself out and was decapitated by a passing train. He’s been seen by several SkyTrain passengers and he’s even been spotted in Gastown, carrying a lantern and looking for his lost head, although how he accomplishes looking without his eyes is left to your imagination.
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