The Bri­gus phan­tom

The Compass - - OPINION -

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


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