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  • White Woman of Bell Island December 27, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    bell island

    Beach recently had the immense pleasure or reading John Widdowson’s If You Be Don’t Be Good, a collection (and analysis) of bogeys used by Newfoundland parents in the interwar and immediate postwar. JW’s purpose was to examine how parents controlled their children in Atlantic Canada, particularly through folklore. But he also picked up many fascinating, incidental references to fantastic creatures and nasty legends lurking in the shadows of Atlantic Canada. One of these was the White Woman or the Woman in White of Bell Island. Now the white woman is, of course, a supernatural being who hovers uneasily between the world of fairies and the world of spirits. She can be found, under different names, through much of Western Europe. Her name here suggests an English origin, though. The legends of the WL of Bell Island on the internet are disappointingly sparse. Here is an extract from a blog on the folklore of Newfoundland:

    [The legends] mainly revolve around Dobbin’s Garden* and the nearby marshes. They are stories of an Irish legend, the Banshee, a female spirit appointed to inform families of impending death. She comes in two forms: a beautiful woman in white, and a deformed old hag. Most encounters circle around the latter. Men have been known to walk through the small marshes, only to come out days later, not knowing where they are, or where they had been. They can only remember a putrid smell, and a grotesque old woman, in ragged clothes, crawling towards them from the bushes, forcing them to the ground with the smell of death.

    It is interesting that JW’s research turned up references that suggested that the White Woman was actually a real person, not a supernatural one. Here are the two informants he recorded.

    Another frightening figure around Bell Island is the Woman in White. She was actually a man, dressed up as a woman in sparkling white clothes wearing a white hood over his head. He used to hang out on dark, lonely roads and attack some poor chap who happened along. The Woman in White is not factional: he is real. Actually, just six years ago in fact, a law-breaking citizen dressed like this; he became a legend. To get their children in early, parents used to threaten them by saying that the Woman in White grabs little children if they are out after dark. The Woman in White has never been captured by the authorities.

    [The Woman in white] was described to me as being a man with a large white blanket over his body. He was very tall and carried an axe, knife and other tools to kill you and chop off your head. He would take me if I stayed out late night. Of all the most frightening figures this one scared me the most.

    On the basis of the first account (recorded in the 1960s or 1970s?) we have a homicidal transvestite; and according to the second one something rather more like the pretend ghosts we have so often run across on this site, though with murderous appendages. So were the accounts that John Widdowson recorded attempts to give a legend a foundation in fact: or were they the origin of what became the legend of a supernatural banshee? Beach would love to know: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    *Note that a dobbin is a supernatural creature from Westmoreland (UK): coincidence?

    27 Dec 2015: Michel sends in a link that leads to this text from South Africa ‘It is alleged that Antjie Somers was a bandit dressed in woman’s clothes who attacked travellers at night. Other sources claim that Somers was just an angry, bitter man after losing his job (having accidentally killed someone) and becoming a fugitive. Frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t return home, or lead a normal life, he stayed in the disguise that he had used to run from the law – clothes belonging to his sister. It is said that he terrorised children while wearing the disguise.• Barnard, M., 2007. Cape Town Stories. Cape Town: Struik pg. 68-9