Skull faced bishop - skeleton's face with a hood. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=57173&picture=skull

The Skull-Faced Bishop: The Horrific Image of One Vancouver Island Ghost

Bishop Seghers’ apparition is one of Vancouver Island’s most terrifying visages. He is said to appear in full priest attire, gliding across the cathedral’s floor from out of the shadows. Instead of a face, or hair, or flesh of any kind, however, the priest has a bare-boned smiling skull set upon his shoulders.

Waves of people arrived in Victoria during the gold rush of 1858, numbering in the tens of thousands: Americans, Australians, Polish Jews, Italians, Chinese, Eastern Canadians, Britons, Hawaiians (Kanaka), and others. Many of the people were only passing through, but thousands of opportunists following the prospectors stayed at the fort, turning Victoria into a city overnight. Drinking establishments and brothels sprang up everywhere. A jail soon followed. Then came the places of worship.

The Quadra Street Cemetery was located beside a small church. Most of Victoria’s first prayer houses were little more than temporary gathering places. Grander buildings followed in the decades to come. The still-standing synagogue on Pandora Street was built in 1863, making it the oldest in Canada. The Presbyterians also had a congregation as early as 1866, but didn’t complete the still-used St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church until 1889. The Anglican Church of Our Lord was built in 1876 and is still used today. Chinatown’s first Tam Kung Temple was built that same year. Many more churches would be constructed in the 1890s, including the Catholic’s new St. Andrew’s Cathedral (not to be confused with the similarly named Presbyterian church).

Black and white photo of St. Andrew’s Cathedral on View Street in Victoria. Photo by Shanon Sinn.

St. Andrew’s Cathedral on View Street in Victoria. Photo by Shanon Sinn.

St. Andrew’s Cathedral was believed to be haunted as early as 1890. Construction had only just begun on the new cathedral, when a lone gunman shot and killed an innocent man—David Fee—as Christmas Eve Mass was letting out. According to court records, during the subsequent trial, the defendant’s lawyer argued that his client had mistaken David Fee for “a ghost.” The site was believed to be haunted by the murdered bishop buried there.

Charles John Seghers: Priest and Bishop in the Pacific Northwest 1839-1886: A Biography by Gerard G. Steckler provides a well-researched overview of the bishop’s life and death. Born in Belgium in 1839, Charles Seghers attended a college that was founded to provide America with English-speaking clergymen. He responded to an appeal for the colony of Vancouver Island, arriving in Victoria in 1863. By 1873 he was named Bishop of Vancouver Island.

Old black and white photograph of Bishop Charles John Seghers, showing his face and shoulders.

Bishop Charles John Seghers ca. 1873. Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_John_Seghers#/media/File:Archbishop_Charles_John_Seghers.jpg

In 1886, Seghers decided to go on a mission to the remote regions of Alaska, “spreading [the] Divine Saviour’s gospel among the heathen.” He brought with him two other priests, an Irish assistant, and a French-Canadian labourer. The goal was to travel overland from the Yukon River in order to reach a particularly remote village before the Protestants did. The trek would be a vigorous November journey through harsh weather and over rough terrain. Used to hardship, the priests led by Bishop Seghers embraced the assignment as a matter of faith and duty. They set sail, landed in Alaska, and then started their overland journey almost immediately.

It wasn’t long before Francis Fuller—the Irishman—began to demonstrate symptoms of “insanity.” By today’s standards, Fuller would have likely been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He heard voices, for example, saying that his travel companions were part of a conspiracy to kill him. When the French labourer disappeared, the priests believed that he had simply become tired of Fuller’s increasing instability. In later years, reporters would speculate that he might have been Fuller’s first victim.

Bishop Seghers believed he could control Fuller, despite the concerns of the other priests. Frustrated with the situation, the bishop sent the priests on a side mission while he and Fuller carried on with three First Nation guides. One of the guides left the party at a trading station. The remaining members continued on their way. Fuller began to act more and more erratic.

On the morning of November 28, 1886, Fuller shot Bishop Seghers through the heart as he leaned over to gather his gear. The man died instantly in front of the two horrified guides. Fuller immediately began to act even more bizarre, shaking one of the guide’s hands while expressing to them that “the man” needed to be killed. The guides wrapped up the body and left to get help with Fuller accompanying them willingly.

The party reached the village that day. No one knew what to do with Fuller. He wasn’t immediately incarcerated, but was instead sent to another village for the winter, away from two local white women who had expressed “terror” at being in his presence. Fuller continued to act strangely over the duration of the winter, apparently changing his story as to what had happened several times.

It wasn’t until spring that the other priests learned of the bishop’s death. By the time the body was recovered from the site of the murder, his face had been partially eaten by mice. Bishop Seghers’ body was moved to the cemetery at St. Michael in Alaska and finally buried in July of 1887.

The trial against Fuller was disappointing, at least for those who’d revered the bishop. Unable to decide if Fuller should be hanged for first-degree murder, or if he was “not guilty” due to reasons of “insanity,” the jury instead chose a compromise: Fuller was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to ten years of hard labour, and fined one thousand dollars. People were outraged.  They thought that the man was either guilty or he wasn’t. Fuller had admitted to killing the bishop; his reasons for the act changed with each telling, but never his admission of guilt.

In 1888, the Catholic Church had the body of Bishop Seghers exhumed and brought home to Victoria. He was placed in an ebony casket with silver mountings and brought to St. Andrew’s Cathedral. The British Colonist reported that Victoria gave the body a hero’s welcome, and people lined the streets. Even the Navy participated in the ceremony.

There were rumours that Bishop Seghers had been shot through the head, so the casket was opened in private. The cause of death was confirmed as a bullet wound. At the time, the attending priests recorded that the body was in a state of decay, but also that the bishop was still easily recognizable. Bishop Seghers was then placed in a crypt alongside another bishop and a priest who had been appointed a bishop, but who had died before being consecrated.

The silver plate on Bishop Seghers’ ebony coffin read:

“Most Rev. Charles John Seghers. Died Nov. 28th, 1886: aged 47 years. R.I.P.”

He was finally buried in Victoria on November 16, 1888, at St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

The first cathedral had been built in 1884, but a Gothic revival replacement was being constructed in 1890. Court records in the David Fee murder case indicate that the construction site needed to hire night watchmen because someone—or something—was playing “pranks” on the men at the location. It’s uncertain exactly what was happening at the time, but the mischief had given rise to two contrasting explanations. Some of the men believed that ghosts were to blame, while others felt vandals were coming into the area and moving items around at night. According to the British Colonist, there was at least one incident where a man was found inside the cordoned-off area by a night watchman and hit with a lantern.

While the building was taking place, an Irishman named Lawrence Whelan was accused of placing a Fenian Brotherhood flag up in the construction area. This was to demonstrate his support for the Irish in the United States who were protesting British rule in Ireland. Not surprisingly, labourers were ordered to take the flag down to the frustration of the Irishman. Witnesses claimed that Whelan said he would make whoever took the flag down “pay.” What he meant by this would later be debated in court.

Hands must have been short on Christmas Eve, as Whelan was hired as the night watchman for the evening. He carried a shotgun as a deterrent. Witnesses testified that Whelan thought the gun was loaded with a type of shot that would scare a man away, but wouldn’t hurt him. He had been drinking all night. As Christmas Mass in the original Cathedral building let out, two men in white jackets and bowler hats exited, walking by Whelan. One of the men carried a toy trumpet that he sounded as they passed him. The man’s name was David Fee. For reasons that remain unclear to this day, the Irishman lifted his gun and shot Fee in the torso. The young man fell to the ground and died in a matter of moments. Whelan initially ran away, but later turned himself in.

Prosecutors claimed that Whelan was upset over the flag incident and that he had shot the wrong man in retaliation by mistake. The intended target, they said, usually wore a white jacket. The evidence supporting this claim—including testimony—was especially weak.

Whelan’s defence lawyer, on the other hand, said that the fear of ghosts was a factor in the killing of Fee. After the case was over, Whelan even went so far as to say that the Devil may have come behind him and pulled the trigger. He claimed he didn’t understand how the gun could have gone off.

According to the British Colonist, witnesses remained divided as to whether or not Whelan was afraid of ghosts. A letter to the editor at the time even brought into question whether or not the electric light on the corner had been on. The speculation, of course, was that Whelan could have easily mistaken the two men in white as ghosts if it had not.

In a coincidence too great to ignore, a jury sentenced Whelan with manslaughter, similar to Bishop Seghers’ killer. The British Colonist said that Judge Begbie, the “Hanging Judge,” was upset at the jury’s light-handed approach. After a condemning speech, he sent Whelan away to serve a life sentence. Whelan was released after serving only ten years for good behaviour.

Victoria’s Ghostly Walks tour guides claim that both murder victims have been seen at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Fee is sometimes described as being in a white clown-like jacket with a red pompom in the middle of it. Accounts during the trial said that the white jackets worn by the men had red “braids” across their chests.

The guides claim that Fee has been seen on Christmas Eve, near the site where he was shot. The sighting is rumoured to accompany the sound of a gunshot. Fee is also believed to haunt the Ross Bay Cemetery.

Bishop Seghers’ apparition, on the other hand, is one of Vancouver Island’s most terrifying visages: a man in full priest attire glides across the cathedral’s floor from out of the shadows. Sometimes he stands still and stares. His smile can be seen, even in the dark—that wide, toothy, piteous smile. As one’s eyes adjust to the shadows, a chill creeps inside of a chest refusing to breathe. Instead of a face, or hair, or flesh of any kind, the apparition of the priest has a bare-boned smiling skull set upon his shoulders.

It is not exactly what one would expect from a man who has dedicated his life to spreading the word of God. The bare skull is odd too. The only reported damage to the bishop’s face at the time was from field mice. As already noted, the British Colonist account of the funeral said that Seghers was recognizable in his coffin, suggesting his face had remained intact even though mice had eaten part of it. Why he’d appear without flesh on his face is a mystery. Like others, this story may have morphed over time as it was passed from one teller to another.

Perhaps the manifestation was an intentional choice on the part of the entity? If this is the case, then the spirit’s motive must be to inspire fear.

Some believe that ghosts truly are the dead. These otherworldly beings are often said to exist because they have unfinished business in the mortal realm, or because they don’t know that they have died. In either case, the ghost of Bishop Seghers would have to be attached to his physical body, as the murder occurred at a distant location. Additionally, the bishop had no connection to the cathedral he is now reported to haunt, as it hadn’t even been built yet.

There is another possibility though. Perhaps a separate negative entity attached itself to Bishop Seghers’ body? According to some schools of thought—including the Catholic idea of demons—such a dark being could have been connected to Fuller originally, or even to the land where the murder took place. Either way, beings such as these are sometimes said to persuade the weak to kill. If this was the case in the bishop’s death, could this spirit have somehow been involved in the second murder as well? As already mentioned, Whelan claimed “the Devil” may have pulled the trigger from behind him. The idea deserves consideration if nothing else.

As recently as 2008, another innocent man was shot and killed near the spot that Fee was. The Times Colonist reported that there had been a dispute at the Red Jacket nightclub across the street from the site of Fee’s murder. The guilty man claimed in court that the killing had been accidental, a spillover from a dispute with another man. He said the victim hadn’t been the intended target at all; in fact, no one had even seen him. Could the murder be yet another coincidence? Or does this tragedy have darker implications as well? Thankfully, in this case, the mastermind behind the attack was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for fourteen years.

Bishop Seghers’ body continues to rest in the crypt beneath St. Andrew’s Cathedral, 125 years after he was first buried. The church has a beautiful stained-glass window that honours him as well. Some people believe that the bishop’s spirit never found rest. The idea has existed for almost as long as he’s been buried there, making the Skull-Faced Bishop one of Vancouver Island’s earliest recorded ghost stories.

Reprinted with the permission of TouchWood Editions. Shanon Sinn © 2017

Win a copy of The Haunting of Vancouver Island by Shanon Sinn

The wonderful folks over at Touchwood Editions have offered a copy of Shanon’s chilling new book of haunting stories from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, for a lucky #FolkloreThursday newsletter subscriber this month!

‘Vancouver Island is known worldwide for its arresting natural beauty, but those who live here know that it is also imbued with a palpable supernatural energy. Researcher Shanon Sinn found his curiosity piqued by stories of mysterious sightings on the island–ghosts, sasquatches, sea serpents–but he was disappointed in the sensational and sometimes disrespectful way they were being retold or revised. Acting on his desire to transform these stories from unsubstantiated gossip to thoroughly researched accounts, Sinn uncovered fascinating details, identified historical inconsistencies, and now retells these encounters as accurately as possible.Investigating 25 spellbinding tales that wind their way from the south end of the island to the north, Sinn explored hauntings in cities, in the forest, and on isolated logging roads. In addition to visiting castles, inns, and cemeteries, he followed the trail of spirits glimpsed on mountaintops, beaches, and water, and visited Heriot Bay Inn on Quadra Island and the Schooner Restaurant in Tofino to personally scrutinize reports of hauntings. Featuring First Nations stories from each of the three Indigenous groups who call Vancouver Island home–the Coast Salish, the Nuu-chah-nulth, and the Kwakwaka’wakw–the book includes an interview with Hereditary Chief James Swan of Ahousaht.’

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The book can be purchased here.

 

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Shanon Sinn is the author of The Haunting of Vancouver Island, an investigation into regional folklore and hauntings from a journalistic perspective. Sinn is also an infantry veteran, photographer, forager, and stand-up paddleboarder. He is currently enrolled in the Vancouver Island University Creative Writing Program and was recently awarded the Barry Broadfoot Award for Journalism. Do visit Shanon’s website and follow him on Twitter.

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