Memorial PhD student maps Newfoundland’s ghost ship tales

Memorial University PhD student Karin Murray-Bergquist has taken her interest in history and folklore and mapped it out for her new home province.

The 29-year-old Ottawa transplant has marked phantom ships, lights, dogs and shipwrecks through an online Map app called MapHub.

Initially, she wanted to map legends of the spectral variety, but figured it would be too much to do in one semester — and it would clutter the map.

“I focused on maritime ghost stories, ghost ships and ghost, hauntings onboard ships and tried to limit it that way,” she said, in late April phone interview. “I was starting with this particular set of sources so that I had kind of a solid beginning point.”

While living in Ottawa, Murray-Bergquist worked as a guide on ghost walks, visiting the old Jail Hostel and Byward Market.

She also grew up as a voracious reader of campfire stories.

“I think it’s a very interesting angle on history, and I think ghost stories can provide a much-needed sense of closure of parts of history that lack certain resolutions,” she admitted. “I find it really interesting to look at how people talk about those stories and how they get retold, and sometimes built on or changed throughout various retellings.”

Phase 2 will have her dive deeper into the lore by conducting more research and interview people who are more familiar with the legends and the community.

“I think in general, in the making of this map, it’s really been revealing because not being from here, I don’t always have a strong sense of the particulars of history around the province,” she said. “A lot of these ghost stories are attributed to a particular time period or a particular place that was important in such-and-such a century.

“That’s helping me stitch together a sense of what the history here is and what’s remembered and kind of putting the foreground when people talk about history,” she added. “That’s been really fascinating because I have learned quite a lot too.”

Some of the patterns she’s learned through her work, with the assist of Nova Scotian folklorist Helen Creighton, is that stories of buried treasure are commonly joined by a body buried with it. That interred person acts as a treasure guardian. Additionally, some ghost ship sightings are also portents, called weather lights, which means they are a matter of life-and-death for those at sea.

Murray-Bergquist’s ultimate goal is to discover whether or not there’s a connection between a particular shipwreck and a specific legend.

“It’s the life of the story that I’m most interested in,” she said.

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