A legend is defined as “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” What then are we to make of “The Legend of Holland Cove?” It is certainly unauthenticated but is it historical?
The tale is a rambling account of the death of Samuel Holland’s mistress and her re-appearance when time and tide are perfectly aligned. It is overlaid with the adventure of a group of campers who just happen to be at the locale at the right time. But as usual with such stories not all is what it seems to be.
To be successful ghostly accounts must have just the right mix of the known and the unknown. The tale is grounded in the residence of Captain Samuel Holland at Observation Cove, now called Holland Cove, in the winter of 1764-1765 while he was engaged in the survey of the colony. With the exception of that single fact, the rest of the tale is fiction. It tells of how Samuel had a mistress, “… a magnificent woman…tall, strait as an arrow with a lovely womanly grace of figure and motion, yet endowed with as much strength as most men; her dark skin, scarcely so dark as to betray the Indian blood in her veins; her hair wound in dark coils round a perfectly poised head, and a face grandly beautiful – a French woman with the added stature of the Micmac race.” The teller of the tale gives her the name “Racine.” While anxiously waiting for Samuel to return from a winter surveying expedition she wandered out on the ice of the Cove, fell through and drowned. Her birthday and the day she met Samuel for the first time was on the 14th of July. This dramatic event is but the pre-amble to the ghost story. In actual fact Samuel was hardly in a position to have mistress while on the Island. He shared the cramped hut built in the woods at Observation Cove with his Quebec-born common-law wife Marie-Josephte Rolet and an infant son.
The highly fictionalized account moves suddenly to midnight, July 14 1776. Holland is away. (He really was away as he lived on the Island for only just under a year in the winter of 1764-1765 and he seems never to have returned. By March 1776 he was far from Holland Cove and was attached to the British forces in New York and he did not leave there until 1778.) However to return to the story – his lieutenant was asleep on the beach at Holland Cove while two of his crew were in the house. One is awakened by voices and sees Racine in the room. She exits, leaving wet footprints, and walks to the cove and across the surface of the water until suddenly she plunges through and is seen no more. The awakened men return to the house and ponder the inexplicable wet footprints left behind.
The story then lurches forward to the late 1890s where a party of holiday campers are under canvas at Holland Cove. The ghost story is told and a young man of the party stays up until midnight. He sees the ghost – or perhaps he doesn’t. The end. So the alleged ghost story is about a group of teenagers and their chaperones reacting to the “legend” then a century old. As ghost stories go it is a pretty lame affair. What is more interesting is the source and after-life of the tale.
“The Legend of Holland Cove” first appeared in Vol VII of The Canadian Magazine, published in 1896. It is clearly identified in the magazine index as fiction. The author is F. Gerald, a name unassociated with any other publications and, as they say, “not an Island name.” Yet the author clearly has knowledge of the Island. A clue to his identity can be found in the Prince Edward Island Magazine for June of 1899 where a story titled “The Smugglers of Holland Cove” has many similarities of style including a party of campers at the Cove cast as the main characters. This story too, is published over the name of “F. Gerald.” However in the index to the volume the author is listed as “Justice Fitzgerald.”
Judge Rowan Robert Fitzgerald (1847-1921) was from a prominent family. He trained as a lawyer and was called to the bar in 1869. He was appointed a Judge of the P. E. I. Supreme Court in 1892 and served more than 25 years on the bench. He was very much aware of Holland Cove as he and his family were among the earliest residents of Charlottetown to holiday at the Cove, initially tenting and later building summer cottages.
Two years after the publication of “The Legend of Holland Cove” Fitzgerald’s story was rewritten and included in Myths and Legends Beyond Our Borders by Charles M. Skinner. Skinner was an American journalist and author whose previous book had dealt with myths and legends of the United States. In casting his net for stories from elsewhere he had obviously spotted Fitzgerald’s recent publication. However Skinner shortened the story and stripped it of its multiple layers setting the whole thing in 1765 and making Holland himself one of those present at the ghostly re-appearance.
The story has one further version. In May 1935 the Charlottetown Guardian published a tale under the title “The Ghost at Holland Cove” by F. Fitzgerald. The judge was dead by this time so it is unclear just who this was. In this telling the heroine of the story is Captain Holland’s wife whose ghost returns at midnight on the anniversary of her death in 1765, now conveniently dated in the summer, when the Cove had its full complement of summer visitors, most staying at the Summer Resorts. (In reality Holland’s wife lived until 1825.) Curiosity about the ghost led to the visitors to stay up until midnight when one of the party was frightened in the woods by another. No ghost sighting. The end. It was hardly confirmation of a longstanding ghostly tradition.
The story with its fragile foundation was continued with the establishment of a Y.M.C.A. camp at Holland Cove after WW2. By the time I attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s it was a regular feature of the camp activities that one night of each camp session the juvenile campers, after suitable mood-setting around the campfire, would be led to the shore of the cove to watch for Lady Holland’s ghost. If the tide was high on the chosen night one of the camp councillors (often “Bones” Likely) would row a boat across the cove with a lantern which would be mysteriously snuffed out, signaling that Lady Holland had met with her fate. If the tide was low the drama would play out on the sandbars. The event was reckoned a success if first-time campers were kept awake by bad dreams.
So when is a legend not a legend? The clearly fictional account, much copied and modified, hardly counts as something regarded as historical but unauthenticated. Simply calling something a legend does not make it so. The tale has become part of a completely ersatz history grounded in nothing but Rowan R. Fitzgerald’s imagination but it lives on in ghost story collections assembled by anthologizers catering to nothing more than curiosity.
Those wishing to read the story in its original form can find Fitzgerald’s tale here, Skinner’s 1898 version can be read here, and the 1935 version is found here. The true story of Samuel Holland and his mistress and wife is told in Samuel Holland, His work and Legacy on Prince Edward Island by Earle Lockerby and Douglas Sobey, published in 2015. The truth is far more interesting than the fiction.
For another nearby location which, in the hands of a latter-day Fitzgerald, might serve as the locale for a ghost story see the posting here.