The interactions between the French and the Newfoundlanders gave rise to many stories, including one particularly interesting ghost story. The story was recorded by Alicia Norris in the Atlantic Guardian magazine in 1946.
Norris had learned the story from an old fisherman in Crouse, fluent in French, who had sailed with the foreign crews as a boy.
In 1879, the French fleet arrived in early May, with the barquentine Sainte Marie being the first to reach land. Each ship tried to reach Newfoundland first, because the captain of the first ship would become the admiral of the fleet for that fishing season. Le Capitaine Henri Lajeunesse was captain of the Sainte Marie, but his tenure as fishing admiral was short lived: after only a day in Newfoundland, Lajeunesse died.
The priest led a procession to the grave, and began a funeral service for the admiral who had died the summer previously. At the culmination of the ceremony, a curious box was brought forward and opened.
“With due formality, from its box and wrappings, was unfolded a huge, multicolored, china mortuary wreath of indescribable beauty,” writes Norris. “It was lovingly inscribed from the wife and children of the dead seaman. The priest laid it on the grave and blessed it. The congregation sang La Marseillaise and dispersed.”
“An object of such beauty had rarely been seen in Crouse,” adds Norris. “People came from miles around to admire it with almost as much sense of possession as did the French sailors who stood pridefully by.”
During the winter months, a local family was given the honour of moving the wreath from the grave to their house for safekeeping. Each summer, it was returned to the grave. This process continued unhindered for several years. But one summer morning, when the son of the family charged with the care of the wreath went to the graveyard, the wreath was missing.
According to local legend, the wreath was stolen by some of the men of the fishing schooner Daisy May. It was a theft that did not go down well with some of the crew; one older gentleman was said to have crossed himself, denounced the men as desecrators, and predicted that bad luck would follow.
True to the man’s prediction, ill luck followed shortly. The fish vanished, replaced with nothing but fog. The schooner ran up on a shoal, then later was caught in terrible storms. One of the best sailors on the crew was tossed from the rigging by unseen hands, and fell to the deck with a smashed leg and broken ribs. Another young man was partially blinded after a close call with a bolt of lighting.
Before long, the crew was certain that the enraged ghost of Le Capitaine Henri Lajeunesse stalked the ship from stem to stern. One sailor, terrified, looked up at one point to see a ghostly figure charging up the deck “like a ferocious lion” in a peaked cap and blue cape.
The final moment came when a huge rogue wave smashed the decks, picking up the captain and cracking his head against a bulwark. The captain, stunned for a moment, eventually opened his eyes and addressed his crew.
“Put her about,” he moaned. “We're going back to Crouse.”
That is what they did, even though the season had barely begun. The thieves replaced the now much-battered wreath back on the grave of Lajeunesse. And that, according to legend, was enough to allay the ghost of the Frenchman. The Daisy May sailed back to Labrador, and got a fair catch.
According to Norris, a solitary, white china rose hung forlornly from the grave of the Frenchman into the 1940s, all that remained of that precious artifact.
“It was a beautiful wreath, that,” Norris’s old gentleman storyteller told her. “A beautiful, beautiful wreath.”