The Brigus phantom
A funeral procession solemnly wends its way to a graveyard at Brigus. En route, a decidedly peculiar incident occurs, exactly as a few of the mourners suspect will happen. Seemingly from out of nowhere, there is heard a brief but distinct sound, not unlike a drum roll. A moment later, the phantom drumming fades. Yet again, an English drummer boy, long since dead, has made good on his promise to an elderly resident.
Made over 250 years earlier, the promise goes this way: “I’ll drum you to your grave, Sir, and I’ll also drum every direct descendant of yours to the grave in payment of your kindness to me.”
Evidently, he has faithfully kept his promise.
Leo English (1887-1971), late curator of the Newfoundland Museum, related the story of the Brigus phantom. English’s biographer writes that he “gained a reputation as an authority on Newfoundland.” The historian explained that “the fishing fleets that came from West England were convoyed in troubled times by British warships,” some of which patrolled Newfoundland waters during the fishing season, “keeping lawlessness in check.” Such warships invariably had aboard a drummer boy who would perform at naval services.
Treated harshly by his captain, one such drummer boy sought his first chance to escape. One day, the man o’ war put into Brigus. That night, under cover of darkness, the boy fled to land.
The warship sailed the next morn- ing without the drummer boy, many of the crew members suspecting he had finally succeeded in breaking free from the sadistic captain. The lad’s absence caused no great stir aboard the vessel. English suggested, “The captain probably laughed heartily over the little fellow running off from his captivity. Besides, there were more drummer lads in England who were anxious to come to the New-foundland for adventure.”
A kind Brigus settler befriended the drummer boy, welcoming him into his family. Growing to manhood in the town, the Englishman learned the fishing trade.
“As a reward for the kindness shown to him,” English continued, “the drummer lad made a promise to the old settler.”
He said, “When you die, I will drum you to your grave,” and, he added, “I will sound my drum at the funerals of your descendants.”
After the old man died, the drummer, true to his word, followed the coffin to the grave and beat insistently on his instrument. Indeed, he performed the identical ritual for direct descendants of the deceased for time immemorial. Finally, the drummer himself, at an advanced age, passed away.
Perhaps not mysteriously, the drumming continued and, according to legend, is still going on in Brigus.
“After the drummer died,” English explained, “one of the fisherman’s direct descendants died. On the way to the cemetery, the mourners heard the roll of the drum, this time from a phantom drum, beat by a phantom drummer.”
Ever since, whenever a direct descendant of the drummer’s benefactor in Brigus dies, a drumbeat can be heard while the funeral cortege is en route to the graveyard.
Responding to accusations that the story he told was patently fantastic, incredible and nonsensical, English maintained to his dying day, “There are more things in heaven and earth than this world dreams of.”
I have attended only one funeral in Brigus. Perhaps the gentleman who was being laid to rest was not a direct descendant of the resident who had shown such kindness to the drummer boy recently escaped from the British warship. I personally heard no phantom drumbeat. But perhaps I simply missed the sound amid the din of the funeral procession. Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at