Everyone loves a good mystery. Was Anastasia Romanov executed with the rest of her family in 1917? Whatever happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste? When and under what circumstances did the steamer Beverley disappear with 23 Newfoundlanders aboard in early 1923? Not as well known as these mysteries, but nevertheless just as puzzling, is the mysterious death of several men on George’s Island in 1876.
I suppose the first question that must be answered is where is George’s Island. Located in the southeastern side of Groswater Bay on the northern coast of Labrador, the large island with its main community also called George’s Island, was once a favored station visited by fishermen of mainland Labrador and Conception Bay, Newfoundland. Off the cove near the entrance to the main settlement, are numerous reefs and underwater rocks; in fact the shoals and ledges near the island were the favorite fishing grounds of several Newfoundland fishermen, including Captain Nathan Norman of Brigus. He was reputedly “the first southerner to locate north of Hamilton Inlet, having settled at Indian Harbor about 1835.” Eventually any livyers on George’s Island re-located, but the island was still in use as a summer settlement at least up to 1981. George’s Island was, according to the Newfoundland and Labrador Encyclopedia, “a colorful and much-frequented” location and in the fall of 1876, shipwreck and murder became part of the island mosaic.
The Hudson Bay Company schooner Walrus left Rigolet, Labrador, on October 15, 1876, sailing for Grady to load more fish; from there it would sail to Montreal with a cargo of salmon, trout, fish oil and other fish products. There was a strong head wind and a heavy sea, so the captain decided to anchor for the night off George’s Island. By the next day the wind increased to gale force and it looked as if Walrus would be driven on one of many reefs off the island. The captain and his crew launched the small boat over the side and attempted to land on George’s Island.
Alas, the age-old story of wreck and ruin prevailed. The boat upset in the surf and all, with the exception of one man, drowned. In the mishap, the bottom of the boat struck a rock that put a hole in the craft. Walrus, unaffected by the gale, stayed firmly anchored at its original spot where the crew left it.
The solitary survivor (who remains un-named) stayed in the general vicinity for five days, and then decided he would have to go back aboard the schooner. He plugged the holes in the boat with his jacket, rowed out to the Walrus and climbed up over the side. As soon as he slipped or unfastened the anchor cables, he was not able to handle the vessel and Walrus ran aground at Black Island, Groswater Bay, a total wreck. Perhaps the story should end here, for that was the tale of the loss of Walrus as told by the survivor to fishermen of the Labrador coast. If the saga had ended well for him, perhaps he was rescued and given transportation to his home.
But, as it turned out, the fishermen of George’s Island saw things differently. Instead of being drowned in the unfortunate circumstances of leaving a ship, the captain and his crew were cruelly murdered. That same fall a crew of “green fish” catchers (those who split and salted codfish, then shipped it salt bulk or undried) went to George’s Island looking for bait. They had some reason to land on the island and, to their horror, found lying on the strand, the bodies of three dead men. Each was decapitated, but there was no sign of their skulls. Their clothes and limbs were all intact. The fishermen could see at a glance that the sea had not caused the condition of the men. Furthermore, the bodies were well beyond the high water mark. Searching around, they found, about sixty yards further west, another body. On this one, the head was still attached, but had been cleft, as with an ax, in four pieces.
Suspicions aroused, the fishermen made a wider search and found two large canvas tents, probably made from a ship’s sail. Judging from the size of the tents and the trampled ground around them, they figured more than one man had erected the tents.
There was nothing else to be seen or learned and the men covered the bodies with sand. They walked over to the opposite side of the George’s Island and located a Mr. Williams who lived on the island. The fishermen related all that they had just discovered. At once Williams went to the murder site (it is not clear if the “green” fishermen went with him) and found that the story told him was correct in every horrible detail. Taking the canvas of the tents with him, Williams went to Fish Cove, a small fishing station on the mainland located on southern entrance to Groswater Bay.
At Fish Cove there resided one Mr. Pottle who, it seems, had several men hired as fishermen who also prepared the fish for market. After Williams related the particulars of this mysterious affair Pottle, with some of his crew, visited George’s Island. He too found the bodies in the position and condition has had been described to him.
Pottle also discovered in a small crevice in the rock near the spot where one of the tents had been erected, several interesting and equally mysterious items – a number of half-decayed books and papers, as well as a woman’s photograph. Who it was, they had no idea.
To Pottle and his men, this seemed to prove rather conclusively that Walrus’ small boat had not upset in the surf and drowned nearly all occupants – as alleged by the survivor. They could only reason the captain and three men had been murdered. At no time did anyone discover the missing heads of three.
After they re-interred the bodies in the sand well above the high water mark, they walled the makeshift grave with stone. Mr. Pottle and his men left George’s Island with its ghastly occupants and returned to their homes at Fish Cove.
Eventually the migratory fishermen who fished the Labrador coast each summer and fall carried the gruesome account to Conception Bay.
Although an account of the crime was published in the papers of the day, there was no follow-up investigation. In the nineteenth century the law as we know it today did not exist on the remote shores and on the offshore islands of Labrador. To this day it is not known what motivated someone to kill four crew of the schooner Walrus, and to remove the heads of three. Why did the murderer act so heinously? And what of the sole survivor? Who was he and did he ever pay for his crime?
Colorful deeds, to be sure, and unanswered questions, too, all on George’s Island, Labrador, many years ago.