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Nancy Coyle

           Newfoundland was the last province to join Canadian Confederation in 1949, but it was one of the first areas to hold colonizers. Newfoundland, in particular St. John’s, was a rough place to live in the nineteenth century. There was a low population, alcohol was cheap, there were always people arriving and leaving, and unwanted bodies were piling up in the streets with no one dealing with them. No one until Nancy Coyle prepared and buried the unknown and discarded. It was not long until her good deed turned against her and she was called a sorceress, shunned by the society she had been helping. Although the 1840s have been over for a long time, no one is really certain if Coyle has left with it.

St. John’s Newfoundland before 1892 – Library and Archives Canada / C-021355

            In the early 1800s, St. Johns had a small population and relied heavily on a single industry economy – the fisheries. Landowners were often absent and no one wanted to pay municipal taxes, so, Newfoundland and St. John’s were reliant on their colonial government to take care of things. The military garrison and the clergy were essential for keeping peace and taking care of the citizen safety. Only a handful of police constables had even been hired in 1812, were paid from tavern licenses and had minimal responsibilities. The military was also essential for fire control, even though a voluntary fire brigade had formed in the 1820s with compulsory payments from landowners and businesses. Their equipment was poor, only getting slightly better in 1846 when private brigades developed, tied to churches and business, who helped pay for the equipment. Newfoundland had no real social structure during this time and without it, it was hard to properly give care to its citizens. It was not even until 1855 that Newfoundland was given full responsible government.

            St. John’s was a particularly difficult place to live in the early nineteenth century. The social help and authority was severely lacking. One significant social service missing was morgues and a place for preparing and burying the dead. Burying the dead was left to families and for those who did not have families, well, they just began piling up. No one wanted to deal with them. The bodies mainly belonged to those who had died on ships – there were a lot of foreign vessels where the dead did not have their family on it or just could not be identified, so they were left on the street. Prisoners who had been executed, or died in prison, had no one who wanted or could bury them and no morgue, so they were piling up. Patients from insane asylums who had passed in the mental hospital’s care, were dumped on the street, no one took care of them. These were the common bodies left on the streets of St. John’s.

St. John’s Water Street 1886 – original photo by Library and Archives Canada / PA-139016

            In 1840 the Colonial Government hired Nancy Coyle, with a standing salary, to prepare the bodies for burial. Coyle was skilled at her job and would prepare them right in her own home. Some said she was so skilled that she could bring people back to life.

            While there is some truth to people “coming back to life,” it was more likely that the people waking up had been knocked out, drank too much, had sick or something else that may have been scientifically unknown at the time. The population at this time was also incredibly superstitious so they pointed at her and called her a sorceress. It was not long after the first two bodies “came back to life” that she was ostracized from St. John’s society.

            The first body to rise again was a Dutch sailor who coffin she had been nailing closed. He woke up suddenly and sat up. Stunned and not knowing what else to do, she gave him a drink of whiskey and he went on his way. The second one was a mental patient from the insane asylum, John Murphy. She had laid his body on the table in her parlor, intending to work on him the next day, before heading to bed. Unable to sleep due to the noises coming from that area of her house, she went to investigate. It was John, he had woken up. As soon as she opened the door, he fled from her house. For days after he was seen walking the streets of St. John’s yelling and talking to himself.

            Once these two events transpired, Nancy was no longer welcome with the living. She died friendless and alone in her house. All the time she spent on unwanted, discarded bodies, no one did the same for her. No one even really knows what happened to her body and if she was buried, she does not have a marked grave.

            Now she is said to just wander. People see her wearing an old-fashioned red cloak, going through the cemeteries of St. John’s, most often of Trinity Church. Sometimes she can even be seen pulling a hearse drawn by a horse. These are the places she supposedly haunts. It is said that even in death she continues to watch over the people buried in the cemeteries. She never interacts with the living, not since being ostracized, her only concern seems to be the dead.

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Trinity, Newfoundland – photo found at http://parkscanadahistory.com/series/chs/25/chs25-1j3.htm

            Nancy Coyle cared for those who had no one else left to care for them. It was a time in Newfoundland that lacked basic social necessities to offer proper services for their population. Individuals often did the work that present day governments oversee. In Coyle’s case, the work she did made her an outcast. She lived and still “lives” taking care of the unwanted and forgotten. Something no one gave to her.

Bibliography

Archived Canadian Confederation. “Newfoundland.” Libraries and Archives Canada, (May 2, 2005). Accessed March 26, 2019. www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/confederation/023001-3060-e.html

Collier, Keith. “St. John’s ,1815-2010.” Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, (2011). Accessed March 26, 2019.  www. heritage.nf.ca/articles/society/st-johns-nl.php

Enkguy. “Newfoundland and Labrador.” 21Ghosts, (April 27, 2016). Accessed March 26, 2019. 21ghosts.info/newfoundland-and-labrador

“History of Newfoundland and Labrador.” Wikipedia. Accessed March 26, 2019. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Newfoundland_and_Labrador#19th_century

Summers, W.F. “Newfoundland and Labrador.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, (September 12, 2010). Updated by Melvin Baker, Jacqueline Mcissac, and Erin James-abra in January 19, 2019. Accessed March 26, 2019. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/newfoundland-and-labrador

Sutherland, Joel A. “Queen of the Dead.” In Haunted Canada 5: Terrifying True Stories, 945-988. Toronto, Ontario: Scholastic Canada Ltd. 2015. Amazon Kindle ebook version.

Women’s History Group. “Nancy Coyle (1840s).” Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador: The Women’s History Walking Tour Booklet, (1999), updated August 2013. Accessed March 26, 2019. www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/society/nancy-coyle.php

1 thought on “Nancy Coyle

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