HERO, THE PHANTOM DOG
History, Myth and Journalism
By Mary Bridson
A thick leather dog collar, trimmed with silver and the letters “HERO” was displayed in the Newfoundland Museum in St. John’s during the fall and winter of 2000-2001. A silver medallion attached to it declared, “The Starry Cross, a symbol of universal mercy, presented to ‘Hero’ by the Starry Cross of Philadelphia, PA. In token of appreciation for his rescue of 92 souls from the Ethie on December 10, 1919.” Another silver cross was added in 1923 by soldiers of Camp Hill Hospital, Halifax. A very real dog collar – so why a phantom dog?
In 1919, the Reid Company steamer, Ethie, was transporting cargo and passengers up and down the West Coast of Newfoundland between Bonne Bay and Battle Harbour, Labrador. She left Cow Head fully laden at 8:00 p.m. on December 10, heading for Bonne Bay. Shortly afterwards, she ran into one of the worst blizzards ever recorded in that area. The crew slaved all night to keep the engines stoked, heading northwest away from rocky coastline, but at daybreak they had made no progress at all and fuel was low. The decks were swept clean of cargo, the life boats damaged or lost, and a thick rind of ice covered everything from deck to mast top, including livestock lashed to the deck. All seemed doomed. But Walter Young, the purser, knew of one spot where they might manage to beach. Captain Edward English made the courageous decision to steer for the sandy cove tucked behind Martin’s Point. Around noon, he thrust the ship on to the sharp-ridged reef, known as The Whaleback, at its entrance. A surging wave carried the ship up and over the reef and jammed it on the rocks; but a hundred yards of raging sea still boiled between ship and shore.
A local resident, Reuben Decker, saw what had happened and ran for help. The men on shore eventually secured a line that had been floated on some kind of buoy from the ship, to which a cable was attached. A bosun’s chair was rigged and one by one, over several freezing and exhausting hours, all on board were pulled across in a canvas chair slung from the cable. The youngest passenger, 18-month- old Hilda Batten, was tucked into a mailbag for the ride. (The records show no consensus on the actual number of people aboard.) The two residents of Martin’s Point and families at Sally’s Cove, three miles down the coast, gave them shelter, food and clothing for several days while the storm raged.
The next day, some men walked the 12 miles to Rocky Harbour and relayed the news that all were safe. The rest of the passengers reached Bonne Bay by December 17, followed by the captain and crew two days later.
News of the Ethie’s fate only reached St. John’s on December 16, after an overland mail courier struggled through the storm to the Reid Company’s office in Deer Lake. The first mention of a dog appeared next day in Curling’s Western Star. Although “particulars of her going ashore are not yet to hand,” the Star reported that “a line was fired from the ship, but got caught up amongst the boulders, so the people of Martin’s Point sent out one of their dogs, a very sagacious animal, to bring it ashore.” Full credit is also given to the “skilful seamanship of Captain English.”
The Morning Post, Evening Advocate and Evening Herald in St. John’s also ran the story. They had dramatic, detailed accounts, dated Bonne Bay, December 16, and were obviously using a common source, someone who must have had primary and technical knowledge of the events on board. ( A Western Star interview with Third Engineer Patrick McEvoy, on December 31, reveals that Captain Spracklin, the company’s agent, was aboard. A folk song composed shortly after the wreck by a Sally’s Cove resident confirms this. Was Spracklin the knowledgeable witness?) The emphasis of the news story is on the dedication, courage and energy of the captain and crew, who were still, at this time, at Martin’s Point salvaging the wreck. There is no dog in sight!
Yet on December 24, the day after most of the passengers and crew left Curling by train for St. John’s, the Western Star (copied by the Daily News on January 2, 1920) states, “the people on land sent off their dogs to bring the lines up to where they could be reached.”
The Evening Advocate also ran a story from Curling on December 24 headlined, “A Newfoundland Dog Rescues Crew,” the first time the dog is thus labeled. However, in this rendering, the dog was put overboard from the ship to release the snagged rope and swim ashore with it.
By December 31 the Western Star had identified the dog as “…a well trained water dog…This wonderfully sagacious animal is owned by Reuben Decker of Martin’s Point” and purser Walter Young, makes his first appearance. This version was run in full in the Evening Telegram on January 8, 1920.
This shipwreck story, with its intermittent detail of dogs bringing a line ashore, resulted in a silver collar being engraved in Philadelphia, as is revealed in the Evening Telegram of March 2, 1920. The headline read: “Canine Hero of Ethie Disaster to be Decorated. Citizens of Philadelphia will send Valuable Collar to Newfoundland Dog at Martin’s Point West Coast. Reuben Decker’s Big Newfoundland Saved Lives of Wrecked Ship’s Company.” A . L. Barrett, the editor of the Western Star, which had been the first to mention the dog, wired the story to the Associated Press. The item caught the eye of Fullerton L. Waldo, of the Philadelphia Ledger, who “wrote a splendid story based on the dog’s heroic deed.”
Waldo’s story appeared in the Philadelphia Ledger, then in the March issue of St. Nicholas magazine. Philadelphians were already subscribing money to engrave a collar for the “Hero.”
It is a most compelling piece of journalism. Based on the “bare fact of the deed,” Waldo blended authentic, first person experience, well considered conjecture, and outright romanticism. Drawing on his own trip to Labrador that summer on the Ethie, he painted a realistic picture of the coastal run. Then he comes to the dog. Although he says he had not yet received details. Waldo declares, “He was not a Newfoundland dog, for the pure breed has all but vanished…He was a ‘Husky’ – the ordinary Eskimo dog, usually fawn colored, about the size of a collie…with a sagacity that would be preternatural in any other sort of dog, he swam to the rock where the rope was caught, and wrestled with the tangle till he worked it loose…the weight of it all but pulled him down and drowned as the freezing salt water sluiced into his jaw… Can you not imagine that little, straining, eager head, and in his eyes the light of half-despair and half a hope, that no man saw, though God in heaven must have known and taken pity?...The lives of ninety two were hanging by that rope and by the thin-spun thread of a dog’s life.”
No wonder the people of Philadelphia were moved!
On December 31, 1919, the Star had identified Reuben Decker as the dog’s owner. An illustration accompanying Waldo’s story, which was run in their December 22, 1920, issue, shows Decker with his dog near Curling railway station. The microfilm image is poor, but the dog looks smaller than a Newfoundland and is mottled, with dark ears and patches. When interviewed by journalist Cassie Brown in 1964, Decker told her that his little yellow cross breed collie, Wisher, had been with him on the beach that day but had played no part in the rescue. He had received the collar from Judge Kent at a garden party in Bonne Bay in the summer of 1920 and had sold his dog and the collar shortly afterwards to William Orum of Saint John, New Brunswick, for a total of $60. He never saw either of them again.
What other proof is there that this story was a mistake or embellishment that got out of hand?
The main themes of the initial newspaper accounts are the wonderful skill and courage of the captain and crew, and the rigging of a bosun’s chair. The record shows that neither the directors of the Reid Newfoundland Company, nor the Mercantile Marine Services, nor the citation of then Governor Harris – all of whom recognized Captain English for his gallantry and seamanship – mention a dog. Perhaps the most positive witness against the dog is Chief Officer John Gullage, who was responsible for advising the captain and keeping the log, extracts of which were later published. In an interview with Cassie Brown in 1963, he gives due credit to Captain English and Walter Young, and mentions Reuben Decker as one of the two residents of Martin’s Point who helped with the rescue. Intrigued, Brown searched the Daily News files where she came across the tale of the Newfoundland dog swimming out to rescue the rope. She went back to Gullage for confirmation. He vehemently denied that there was a dog, claiming “Paddy Burton, our Chief Engineer, told that story coming through on the train. It was just a story, mind you, told for devilment, but that’s how it got started.” Burton may well have embellished the story, but it was first mentioned in the Star on December 17, a week before the train trip and two days before the officers and crew left Martin’s Point.
The actual collar seems to have been forgotten in Newfoundland after 1920, but the mythical dog took on a new lease of life as well as a new identity. St. John’s newspapers had already dubbed it a Newfoundland dog. E. J. Pratt’s 1920 poem “Carlo,” based on an erroneous newspaper report, immortalized the deed.
Harold Macpherson, in spite of his own knowledge of the breed’s rarity in Newfoundland, used this dramatic story to illustrate “the Newfoundland’s intrepidity and almost amphibian qualities,” in The Book of Newfoundland, Volume One. He seemed unaware of the collar, or a silver cup presented to Captain English, when he stated that, “Beyond a press notice recounting the incident, no award was given.”
Paul O’Neill told two versions of the story in The Monitor. In 1975 he introduced dramatic new details from the engine room and passengers. His account fits with the known facts, apart from “Reuben Decker’s big Newfoundland dog” retrieving the rope and a muddled version of the reward: “The passengers and crew of the S. S. Ethie afterwards got together and gave the dog a collar valued at $100 but Decker was a poor man and he later had to sell the famous animal, collar and all to get food.” O'Neill's other version is more puzzling. A ship’s dog, an heroic Newfoundland named Tang, is sent overboard to retrieve the tangled rope after one sailor had already drowned in the attempt. Tang was then given “a Meritorious Service medal from Lloyds of London, which he wore on his collar until he died in St. John’s of old age.” Lloyds has no record of the medal and the “Account of Crew” of the Ethie records no sailors death. Three years later, having gathered his facts from Cassie Brown and the “baby”, Mrs. Hilda Menchions, O’Neill dismissed both versions as mythical.
The Tang story goes back to at least 1960, when it appeared in an evangelical publication called Saved as a prelude to a homily about salvation. Megan Nutbeem wrote another article on Newfoundland dogs for The Book of Newfoundland, Volume Three. Unlike Macpherson, she embraces the Tang version, complete with drowned sailor, 119 people saved, and a baby only months old. The same story is found in the 1971 official publication of the Newfoundland Club of the America. Its only other basis seems to be a phone call Michael McCarthy received after telling the Ethie story in a radio broadcast. McCarthy remembers the lady as Captain English’s wife or daughter, who claimed that the Newfoundland dog involved in the rescue belonged to English.
In spite of the prevalence of these two dog tales, the authentic story of the Ethie did still appear from time to time. Don Morris’ column in the Sunday Express in December 1990 relates that the mailbag had been given to Mrs. Batten and her daughter, Hilda, who had presented it to the museum at Rocky Harbour where it is still on display.
Nearly 80 years after the event, Bruce Ricketts visited Bonne Bay, saw the wreck and heard the story. He put it on his “Mysteries of Canada” web site, where it was seen by Dottie Olson, a hotel owner in Wrangell Island, Alaska. The collar was hanging over her bar! A neighbour had given it to her when clearing out an attic. Ricketts discovered that the collar had gone to Alaska in 1923 with another New Brunswicker, Dennis Kane, and his big brownish-black dog, King. Ricketts has posted on his website a photo found in the same trunk as the collar, of a dog with a pale face and dark patches. Could this be Reuben Decker’s Wisher replaced en route to Alaska, as well as in myth, by a more “authentic” Newfoundland dog? Ricketts made arrangements for the return of the collar to Newfoundland for exhibition in October 2000.
Newfoundland newspapers of the 19th and 20th centuries weave a colorful tapestry of social, economic, and political threads to enliven the sparsely furnished walls of official data. We might think that physical artifacts carry more authority, but what would we make of the silver collar next to the silver cup, let alone the mailbag, without the details presented by the journalists. They give us an insight into the human courage, skill and generosity exhibited that day in December 1919. By contrast, “Shipwrecked” is the bare bones entry in Captain English’s discharge column on the “Account of Crew.” However, this essay is intended as a cautionary tale on the nature of journalism. Newspaper accounts should be treated with healthy skepticism at all times; never taken at face value without some form of cross-referencing.
As for the Ethie, her rusted remains still rest on the rocks near Martin’s Point, a solid anchor to the story of Hero, the phantom dog.
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