William Blackwell

Dark Fiction Author

Tag: witch

The Real Witch of Port-LaJoye

Doing research recently on The Witch’s Tombstone, my latest supernatural thriller, I got temporarily stymied. I learned about a novel by Joyce Barkhouse apparently called The Witch of Port LaJoie, which supposedly documents the fate of a witch burned at the stake in Prince Edward Island (PEI) in the 1700s. Multiple searches produced no results. As I usually do when I run into a roadblock, I put the task aside to revisit it in the future, often with more determination.

In the meantime, I bought and read a novel called The Tragedy of Minnie McGee by Joanne Collicott McGuigan. This true story about a troubled and abused PEI woman who poisoned six of her children in 1912 by feeding them weak tea tainted with the heads of phosphorous matches will also form part of The Witch’s Tombstone. It’s a compelling read, rich in information, about the first woman on PEI sentenced to hang for her crimes. It’s also very repetitive and could use another coat of editorial polish.

About a week later, I again started searching for the Barkhouse novel and found no results. I started playing with the spelling of Port LaJoie and discovered there are at least three spellings for the French settlement on the southwestern part of the harbor opposite the city of Charlottetown. It is now a major tourist attraction, also known as Rocky Point. Some spell it Port LaJoie, while others spell it Port-LaJoye, the Wikipedia version. I don’t know which one is correct, but the Port-LaJoye spelling produced Joyce Barkhouse’s novel called Witch of Port Lajoye. In her book title, she doesn’t use the hyphen and she doesn’t capitalize the j in LaJoye.

Regardless of the correct spelling (for now I’ve decided on the Wikipedia version), I ordered a paperback of the short novel as part of my research. There isn’t much in the way of a book description. All I could find on Google Books was this:

A haunting legend set in Prince Edward Island. A young Basque woman learns the healing ways of the Micmac, only to be called a witch by the settlers on the Island in the early 1700s.

In any event, other research produced some fascinating stuff. On the government website upei.ca, information sourced from Fort La Joie (that’s how they spell it) Public Archives and Records Office, tells this tale of the legend of La Belle Marie, also known as Marie Granville:

In Port La Joie, during the French Regime, the Mi’kmaq and the Acadians had developed a relationship, and became allies, so it was not uncommon for French legends to include the Mi’Kmaq, or vice versa. The Mi’kmaq were well known for their beautiful folklore, which was written in their native tongue. The Legend of La Belle Marie is a romantic legend which occurred in the Port la Joie vicinity. Marie’s mother, known as Madame Granville, came to Port la Joie after the death of her father, in search of a quiet and simple life. She supposedly wandered from place to place with her daughter, never feeling quite at home, until she reached the Mi’Kmaq settlement. As the story goes, the mother and daughter settled in with the Mi’Kmaqs, and adapted into their lives. They participated in their everyday activities; dancing with them in the evenings, and settled into their dwelling at night, which lay near the haunted spring.

That autumn during the uik paltimk, or farewell feast celebrated before the dispatch of the hunters to the mainland for large game; the chief announced the betrothal of his son to the beautiful pale face, Belle Marie. Madame Granville prepared to set out on a journey to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in order to collect a suitable dowry for her daughter who is to be the bride of the Indian Prince. The following spring the mother and daughter set off down the river to Port la Joie where Madame Granville was to set out on her journey. However, that afternoon, their empty canoe drifted out to sea with the tide. A search party was formed by her soon to be husband, Kaktoogwasees, and the following morning, two bodies were located on the banks of the river. Madame Granville was dead, and scalped. Marie showed some signs of life, and was immediately brought back to the wigwams for medical attention. She fully recovered and the wedding took place in July. As the newly wedded pair passed from the bower to the open, a crackling sound was heard in the leaves and branches. La Belle Marie gave forth a cry… She threw herself on her husband and tore an arrow from his bleeding bosom. Kaktoogwasees took his last breath and died in her arms.

Marie was now afraid of the society she had grown to love. She knew her husband had been taken down by a member of their own tribe, and felt no one could be trusted. The French inhabitants generally shunned her for her unorthodox behavior, except for the fisherman, who believed she could bring them good luck. The wives of the fisherman grew jealous and complaints were lodged against her to the Intendant at Port la Joie. La Belle Marie was brought to trial and accused of witchcraft. She was found guilty and sentenced to burn at the stake.

Yet, according to Julie V. Watson, Ghost Stories and Legends of Prince Edward Island, even the burning flames of hell were not enough to silence La Belle Marie.

She writes:

Yet even death in the flames was not enough to silence La Belle Marie. It is said that a young soldier posted as a guard on the eve of her execution was never allowed to rest in peace. That night Marie sang her wild, plaintive songs until she had his attention, then begged the young man to set her free and flee with her to seek her father’s buried treasure. The young French soldier was tempted but heeded warnings about her bewitching spells making men do evil deeds and left her imprisoned.

The next day she was tied to a stake driven into the ground between Point de la Flame and the Black Cross, an area now known as Rocky Point. And, the young French-man watched her burn, singing her songs. He ran from the scene and wandered aimlessly until found days later. He claimed to hear the melody of Mineota all of his life, plagued with it even on his deathbed.

Did racial bigotry and misunderstanding of a fey teenager bring about such unhappiness? Or was Marie truly evil, bringing the wicked ways of her father to her own generation? We will never know.

Either way, the legend of La Belle Marie is a powerful and compelling tale. Some say, if you visit the wind-blown cliffs of Rocky Point, you might even here the melodious songs of La Belle Marie dancing on the waves.

In the meantime, I wait with baited breath for my paperback novel, Witch of Port Lajoye, to arrive in the mail.

The debunked tale of the so-called witch called Paddy McGuinness, the true tragic account of Minnie McGee, and the legend of La Belle Marie will all form part of The Witch’s Tombstone. It is a work of fiction but will also combine many facts, legends, and folklore of PEI.

To whet your appetite, here’s a short synopsis: A troubled young woman cursed with shadowy supernatural powers believes she’s the descendant of an evil witch who was burned at the stake in the 1700s for her crimes.

When the truth leads you astray

I’ve heard it said that, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts.” I fall back on the saying occasionally when engaged in a debate where the facts will only show one answer. No gray area. Just black or white, right or wrong.

One such story is the tale of Paddy McGuinness, the so-called female witch. As the rumor goes, she poisoned children in the early 1900s and a successful witch hunt led her to the gallows where she was publicly hanged for her crimes. People say her tombstone is in The Roman Catholic People’s Cemetery in Charlottetown. The weathered statue depicts a grief-stricken woman holding a hand to her face. An old cross leans up against her, tilted at an odd angle, probably the result of Mother Nature’s powerful forces. My research shows that she isn’t buried below the witch’s tombstone in Charlottetown at all. In fact it’s a man by the name of Patrick Paul McGuinness. Paddy is a common nickname for Patrick.

As well, sources say that that area of the cemetery is no older than 1960, so the Paddy McGuinness timeline doesn’t square with the facts. In efforts to further debunk the myth, I reached out to PEI history guru Ed MacDonald.

He writes: “Jim Hornby published a history of capital punishment on PEI through Island Studies Press about 20 years ago now. No mention of a Paddy McGuinness there. I suspect the story is a complete fabrication possibly concocted by combining two incidents: one old legend about The Witch of Port Lajoie, which was made into a novel by Joyce Barkhouse and concerns a supposed witch from the French Regime on PEI in the 18th century; and the well-known case of Minnie McGee of St. Mary’s Road, who poisoned five of her children in 1912 but was not hanged. She spent the remainder of her life either in prison or a mental hospital… Minnie was no witch, just a tragically troubled mother.”

According to a news story in The Graphic, in “April 1912, Minnie McGee poisoned her six kids by soaking phosphorus matches in weak tea, and giving it to them to drink. They became deathly ill within days: they vomited, their pulses weakened, their hearts failed. The first five children died on the same day: Louis (age 13), Penzie (age 12), Georgie (age 8), Bridget (age 6) and Thomas (age 5). Johnnie (age 10) died two days later.”

In her confession, Minnie, whose real name was Mary Cassidy-McGee, reportedly said, “They will be better off. They will be in heaven.”

The Minnie McGee story is a tragic account of a woman who endured much hardship and suffering and found herself in a position of utter despair and hopelessness. Prior the poisoning, two of her children had died from pneumonia. Evidently her husband Patrick was frequently away from home seeking work and often beat her. “Pat, my husband, used to beat me quite often. He would beat me when I was sick in bed.”

Some may find it hard to have sympathy for a woman who poisons her children. But when you consider her situation—a poor, abused, troubled woman raising six children by herself in the winter of 1912, it is hard not to feel a pang of sadness for her plight. After all, she lived during a time when spousal abuse was hardly frowned on; there were few counselors, no shelters, no government hand-outs or food banks. With no one to turn to for help, the weight of her burden became too much.

Although Minnie was originally sentenced to hang, the community rallied around her and in the end her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She spent part of her days in jail and part of her days in an insane asylum, before passing away in 1953.

So, where am I going with all this? Well, what started out as a story of the so-called witch called Paddy McGuinness has morphed into a tale that will combine the tragedy of Minnie McGee with The Witch of Port Lajoie. A cursory search of major book retailers showed no such book currently available for purchase. I guess I’ve come full circle. I find myself once again searching for an elusive witch. Research takes you down strange and unexpected paths.

Tune in next week for a follow-up.

Thanks for stopping by, please leave comments below, and have an awesome day.