Essays

The Ghost of James Cawdor

Bill MacDonald

A seance to contact a dead miner at Port Arthur, Ontario, in 1923—conducted by Conan Doyle himself.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famed Scottish novelist, spiritualist and creator of Sherlock Holmes, enjoyed visiting Canada. It’s a known fact that he preferred Canada to the USA. I’m sure he’d be gratified to know that the Arthur Conan Doyle Society of North America has its headquarters in Ashcroft, BC, a stone’s throw west of Kamloops.

Between 1894 and 1923, Sir Arthur toured Canada at least four times and on two occasions traversed the country by train from Vancouver to Halifax. What he liked to do was flog his books along the way, give talks on spiritualism and indulge his fascination with deep-shaft silver mining. He was already familiar with the silver mines of Cornwall and had great respect for Cornish miners. In British Columbia he was particularly intrigued by the Silver King mine near Nelson, on the west arm of Kootenay Lake, which, like most deep-shaft silver mines, had run out of ore and had been abandoned in 1911.

In the summer of 1914, just before the start of World War I, Sir Arthur visited my great-aunt Leone’s neck of the woods, northwestern Ontario. Specifically, the town of Port Arthur, on the storm-swept shore of Lake Superior. Back then, before it amalgamated with nearby Fort William into the present dysfunctional metropolis of Thunder Bay, there wasn’t much happening in Port Arthur. Still, our famous visitor stopped there, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there was the old Colonial Theatre, in which he gave evening lectures on spiritualism and sold a few books. For another, there were several abandoned silver mines in the area: Silver Harbour, Silver Mountain, Silver Bay, Silver Islet. Of these, during its boom years between 1872 and 1884, Silver Islet, thirty nautical miles east of Port Arthur, was by far the most productive, yielding several million dollars in profit and sinking its shaft to a spooky depth of 1,200 feet. Sadly, in 1885, thoroughly depleted, the mine was abandoned and the shaft allowed to flood, and Silver Islet became a ghost town. The sixty-five miners and their families were forced to go elsewhere looking for work, leaving their vacant houses to the mercy of the elements.

It was at the Colonial Theatre in Port Arthur, after his initial talk, that Sir Arthur first met my great-aunt Leone. He was accompanied on that occasion by his publicist, Mr. Booth, and by Mr. Booth’s secretary, a compliant young woman named Agnes. In later years Aunt Leone couldn’t remember whether Sir Arthur’s wife was with him on that visit. Somehow she didn’t think so. After the lecture she introduced herself to him, bought a couple of his books, assured him she was a devout occultist. What she hoped to be able to do, she said, was persuade him to pay a visit to Silver Islet, since her late stepfather, James Cawdor, was buried in the cemetery there and she wished to contact him.

I must tell you, Aunt Leone was a very persuasive person. Few things in life intimidated her. My parents used to say that her feistiness was the result of her severe upbringing. When her unmarried mother became pregnant, her biological father had fled to Africa, where, in 1874, he was murdered by Burundi tribesmen. To prevent her baby being born fatherless, the mother married a gruff widower named James Cawdor. Unfortunately, the poor young thing did not survive her daughter’s birth. And so from infancy onward, Aunt Leone faced an uphill battle. Her stepfather didn’t really want her. Her step-siblings, two older sisters (one of whom became my grandmother), resented her. And so she had no choice but to grow a thick skin. Throughout her life, she never forgot those who were kind to her, nor those who were cruel. During her teenage years, after her step-siblings moved away from Port Arthur and took up residence in southern Ontario, she served more or less as James Cawdor’s unpaid housekeeper.

On June 25, 1914, a dark, drizzly, overcast day, Aunt Leone, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mr. Booth and Agnes took passage to Silver Islet aboard the coastal steamer Forest City. After disembarking, they walked along a rough gravel road to the cemetery. On the way they passed James Cawdor’s vacant house, Crannog, which had fallen into disrepair since his death the year before. In the cemetery, under umbrellas, they stood beside his grave and spoke in hushed tones.

“Tell me,” said Doyle, “how did your stepfather earn his living?”

“He was a carpenter,” said Aunt Leone. “A handyman. A jack of all trades. He was also a sailor and a prospector. One day he sailed here to Silver Islet, saw all those vacant dwellings, and decided to take one for himself. He expected me to keep house for him.”

“More to the point, I suppose,” said Sir Arthur, “is: how did he die?”

“He fell down the old mine shaft,” said Aunt Leone, pointing to the ruins of the head frame and engine house.

James Cawdor had become a bit of a recluse, she told him, a bit of a dreamer. He had the idea that if he could lower himself down as far as the first tunnel, he might rediscover the vein, or find a bonanza of silver ore. The day before he died, he told people he’d heard a voice, supposedly the voice of a long dead miner, who had advised him to get a rope a hundred feet long, or else build a ladder, and lower himself down. The miner’s ghost, if that’s who it was, would show him a secret hiding place full of silver nuggets. So that’s what he set out to do. Next day, when he didn’t come home, people went looking for him, and a week later someone spotted his lifeless body, all puffed up, floating in the shaft, which in those days was nine-tenths full of slimy water. There was no rope, no ladder, and so he either fell or was pushed. They finally fished him out with grappling hooks. They sent for the coroner in Port Arthur, who found no evidence of foul play and ruled it an accidental drowning. They buried him in the cemetery, locked Crannog’s door, put up a No Trespassing sign.

“Neither of my stepsisters attended the funeral,” said Aunt Leone. “They said they were never informed.”

After giving this some quiet thought, Sir Arthur said, “Let’s see if we can get through to him.”

Which was exactly what Aunt Leone had been hoping for. But though they tried, standing there in the drizzle on that dark, foreboding afternoon, anxious for the sound of James Cawdor’s voice or some other indication that he was aware of their presence, they observed nothing. They heard wind, leaves rustling, the mournful cries of seagulls, but nothing supernatural. And finally Sir Arthur said, “My dear, I think we’d stand a better chance at night, in your stepfather’s house, rather than here at his graveside in broad daylight. However, I must return to Port Arthur this evening and catch the train for Toronto. What I’d like to do is come back to Silver Islet next summer, stay overnight, and conduct a proper seance. I’m sure that under the right circumstances we could summon forth your ancestor.”

Which, had it not been for World War I, is what they might have done. As it turned out, however, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not return to North America until the summer of 1923, when he was sixty-four years old. With his wife Jean along to assist him, he again did a cross-Canada tour, and on July 5 he stopped off in Port Arthur to give a lecture at the Colonial Theatre. Of course Aunt Leone was there, and was mildly surprised that Doyle remembered his promise to return to Silver Islet with her. “I’m looking forward to it,” he said, when she reminded him. “I think this time we’ll have better luck.”

The next afternoon, accompanied by Mrs. Doyle, Mr. Booth and compliant Agnes, who was now Mrs. Booth, they sailed to Silver Islet aboard the Forest City. By now, five years after the war, many of the once abandoned buildings were occupied by squatting vacationers. Silver Islet had become a popular holiday spot and watering hole. The old hotel, Gitchee-Gumee, had been resurrected, and it was there that Sir Arthur and his entourage took rooms and enjoyed a tasty trout dinner in the rustic dining room.

At dusk they walked along Superior’s rocky shore to James Cawdor’s neglected house, Crannog. Not having been lived in for nine years, it was in a sad state. Inside, as they lit candles, they could hear bats squeaking in the eaves. The smell of mould and mildew, the eerie silence, the shadows, the hollow sound of their footsteps on the floorboards were almost more than Aunt Leone could bear. Not to mention the dust-covered furniture and the west wind sighing at the windows.

Sir Arthur said he thought their best chance of success would be in James Cawdor’s bedroom, and so that’s where they went. Aunt Leone sat on the edge of the bed while Sir Arthur and the others made themselves comfortable in rattan chairs. Before a single word was uttered, Aunt Leone felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise and her mouth go dry. She wondered if this was such a good idea after all. To be truthful, she almost regretted having suggested it.

And then, as though from a considerable distance, she heard Sir Arthur say, “Now, my dear, who was it you wished to contact?”

“My late lamented stepfather, James Cawdor,” whispered Aunt Leone. “A reasonable man, for the most part, though somewhat irascible, with human failings, such as a fondness for whiskey and an intolerance for children. He was a wishful thinker who sought his fortune in a defunct mine and fell to his death down the open shaft.”

“And who, if I’m not mistaken,” added Sir Arthur, “until his untimely and mysterious death, inhabited these very premises. Who once sat in this very room, on these very chairs, who slept in this very bed, under this very roof, inside these very walls, and who may be here now, this very night, wondering why it has taken his stepdaughter so long to make contact and express her sorrow.”

It was at that moment, according to what Aunt Leone told my parents, that they heard what sounded like muffled footsteps, followed by strange splashing noises, followed by a long, shuddering sigh.

“James,” whispered Sir Arthur, his voice low and hoarse. “James Cawdor, is that you?”

Aunt Leone would say later that although it was a warm night she felt a cold gust of air, and cold hands gripping hers. She could smell damp stone and seaweed, and she saw a faint, aqueous pool of light come floating down from the ceiling.

“I feel a presence,” whispered Sir Arthur. “Does anyone else feel it? James Cawdor, is that you?”

And then, according to Aunt Leone, they heard the screech of rusty hinges, a fearful clanking of chains, or shovels on rock, and a pathetic, fading cry, as from someone falling.

“James!” hissed Sir Arthur. “Your dutiful stepdaughter Leone is here.”

At that exact moment, Aunt Leone felt someone touch her right shoulder. It was, she said, a firm, familiar gesture, but an impossible one, because there was no one near her. Nevertheless, she felt fingers on the back of her neck, and cold breath against her ear, and her nostrils were filled with the scent of damp, decaying flowers.

And that was pretty much all she remembered. She had only a fuzzy recollection of leaving James Cawdor’s house, of stumbling along the road toward Gitchee-Gumee, supported by Mr. Booth and Agnes, following Sir Arthur and his wife, who carried lanterns. She faintly remembered being helped to her room by a young chambermaid, who lit her lamp for her and brought her a pitcher of hot water so that she could wash her face. No sooner had her head touched the pillow than she was fast asleep.

Next morning, when she woke up in her iron bedstead on the second floor of the hotel, sunlight was streaming through her window and she could hear loons and seagulls calling. The young chambermaid brought her another pitcher of hot water and a most welcome cup of tea, and informed her that breakfast was being served downstairs, where her friends were waiting.

At breakfast, Jean Doyle and Sir Arthur sat beside her, and Mr. Booth and Agnes hovered solicitously. A waiter in white jacket and shiny shoes brought tea, toast and bowls of porridge. Aunt Leone was intrigued to hear that during her trance the night before, some unseen entity had called her by name and engaged her in conversation, while Sir Arthur and the others had listened to her responses. At one point, as though from a gust of wind, all the candles in the house had gone out simultaneously.

“You referred several times to James Cawdor,” said Mr. Booth.

“Of course,” said Aunt Leone. “My stepfather. I could feel his presence. He held my hands and touched me on the shoulder.”

“Once or twice,” said Sir Arthur, “the spirit seemed to shake you bodily, making us fear for your safety.”

“I have no recollection of that,” said Aunt Leone, “though I don’t doubt it. My step­father used to shake me when I misbehaved. He may have been scolding me. By the way, your moustache reminds me of the one he wore.”

“You gave the impression of being poised on a precipice,” said Jean Doyle. “Of being prepared for flight. It took our collective strength to hold you back.”

“And we heard a man’s voice calling from a great distance,” said Mrs. Booth. “A voice full of sorrow, or of accusation.”

“There is no doubt in my mind,” Aunt Leone said softly, “that it was the voice of my stepfather, James Cawdor.”

At which point Sir Arthur reached out and held Aunt Leone’s hand. Don’t forget, besides being a spiritualist, he was a writer of detective stories, creator of that most famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.

“There’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said. “The day your stepfather fell down the mine shaft, was there anyone near him?”

Aunt Leone thought about this, accepted another cup of tea. “I hardly think so,” she said. “I believe he was entirely alone.”

They spent a leisurely morning on the hotel veranda, talking quietly, enjoying the sunshine. When Sir Arthur suggested they stay a second night and try to reconvene with James Cawdor’s ghost at Crannog, Aunt Leone politely but firmly said no, definitely not. They went for a pleasant walk along the beach, gathered bits of driftwood, stopped at the post office so that Mrs. Doyle and the Booths could mail postcards back to England. At midday, under bright sunshine, they returned to Gitchee-Gumee for lunch, and later that afternoon they boarded the Forest City for the return trip to Port Arthur. A rather large crowd had gathered on the dock to bid them bon voyage, because, as Aunt Leone said, it was not every day that a personage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stature paid a visit.

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