Showing posts with label legend. Show all posts
Showing posts with label legend. Show all posts

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Parachutes and Petticoats - Exploring a peculiar NL legend with folklorist Nicole Penney #FolkloreThursday

Parachute Petticoats
By Nicole Penney

Do you know the store of the girl whose life was saved by her dress?  

As the tale goes, a young girl fell from a very high cliff but was not injured. She couldn’t remember anything about the fall, but it was generally accepted that the wind was so high that it gathered under her dress and parachuted her safely to the beach… some 200 feet below! 

The Baroness Bomburst floating back to earth in the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

In the version relayed to me, the girl is named Janis aka Jane/Janay Phillips and the event took place around 1935 in Bonavista, between Spillar’s Cove and Cable John Cove.  

Upon researching the details of this account, I discovered many more examples of life-saving dresses. As it turns out, the “parachute petticoat” is a well-used media trope. In Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s dress puffs out, allowing her to drift, unharmed, down the rabbit-hole. There’s also the Baroness Bomburst floating back to earth with the help of her petticoat in another Disney film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The so-called parachute petticoat has been utilized over and over in TV and movies, especially cartoons. 

Interestingly, it seems the trope may stem from reality. There are numerous historical accounts of dresses, particularly hoop dresses, saving lives. According to The News and Observer, a Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper, a woman by the name of Mrs. Louisa Biggs Station Yates was travelling on the Mississippi River when the steamer caught fire. Mrs. Yates jumped into the water and was saved by her hoop skirt, “which was fashionable in those days.” 

The book Bridging Saint John Harbour by Harold E. Wright includes a story from Saint John, New Brunswick about a Victorian woman who threw herself in the dark waters of the Reversing Falls, a series of rapids in the Saint John River. She was saved from certain doom when her “her hoop skirt acting as a parachute.” 

The following event occurred in Munfordville, Kentucky and was compiled by Edith Bastin as part of the Polston/Poston Family Index. According to Bastin, Nancy Josephine 'Josie' Harrod Edwards aka Granny Edwards, often told her grand-daughter about the adventurous stories of her life. In one such story, Granny Edwards and Grandpap Edwards were walking to Munfordville from their Rowletts home and as they walked across the Green River via the railroad trestle at Munfordville, they heard a train coming. Grandpap climbed over the edge and held tight to the railroad cross-ties for the train to pass. While Granny was holding the cross-ties, the train was rumbling overhead and she lost her grip. As she fell to the ground, her big hoop skirt ballooned out and let her down easy. The hoop skirt again acted as a parachute!
There’s also Mary Kingsley, an English ethnographer, scientific writer, and explorer whose travels throughout West Africa and criticism of missionaries helped shape European perceptions of African cultures and British imperialism.  On more than one occasion she fell into a game trap, a deep pit dug by hunters to catch unwary animals, and found that her skirts saved her legs by snagging on the sharp spikes of ebony. Not quite a parachute petticoat, but a life-saving dress nonetheless.  

The account of Ms. Janis Philips, isn’t even the only parachute petticoat story found in Newfoundland and Labrador.  A letter from Franklin Arbuckle dated May 29, 1945, published In the St. John’s Telegraph, recounts the story of “Lover’s Leap”, a cliff located between Ship Cove and Blow Me Down.  

According to residents, in 1864 a young couple, Charles Dawe and Brigitte (Biddy) Warford, were leaning on a wooden rail on the eastern gulch in Daniels Hole as they had their goodnight kiss. Suddenly, the rail gave way and the two fell more than 60 feet to the beach below. Brigitte survived with light injuries, but Charles was seriously injured. 

According to local residents, the area known as Lovers Leap, near Patrick’s Pier, in the community of Blow Me Down on the Port de Grave Peninsula, was the inspiration behind Frank Arbuckle’s painting, “True Lovers Leap, Newfoundland,”

Gerald W. Andrews states in “Heritage of a Newfoundland Outport: The story of Port de Grave, 

“It was surmised that both were saved from instant death by the fact that Biddy was wearing a hoop skirt which acted as a parachute to slow their descent, and it hooked in to a ledge before their final impact.” 

Brigitte carried her love to safety, Charles recovered and they went on to marry. It was later discovered that the rail had been sawed.  Apparently Brigitte’s family disapproved of the relationship and her brother, Azariah, came under suspicion. However, it would never be proven. 

Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951)

If you’re questioning the veracity of these stories, you’re not alone. I mean, the stories sounds plausible enough but can a dress really save a life or is this the stuff of legend? To answer that, we need to look at what exactly a legend is. 

According to folklorist Elliott Oring, “legends are considered narratives which focus on a single episode, an episode which is presented as miraculous, uncanny, bizarre or something embarrassing.” Our parachute petticoats definitely have the miraculous, uncanny and bizarre going for them. Also, legends are set in an historical time and often makes reference to real people and places. Life-saving dresses cover this aspect of legend as well. Moreover, the structure of a legend by its very nature makes the question of its “truth” subjective. Legends often depict the improbable within the world of the possible and force us to negotiate the truth of these episodes. The dress stories leave us to ponder not only the limitations of gravity but also petticoat aerodynamics. 

Sadly, it seems our parachute petticoats might be too good to be true. Upon closer examination, the stories are likely an example of migratory legend. That’s not to say a dress couldn’t save a life, but these tales have all the hallmarks of a legend. But as far a legend goes, the truth of the story isn’t really that important anyway. Legends are told because they are interesting, entertaining and amazing stories that require the audience to examine their worldview. Legends are valuable folk narrative because they not only entertainment us, but require us to question our sense of the normal, the boundaries of nature, and conceptions of fate, destiny and coincidence. 

But there’s so many newspaper accounts of this actually happening. How could the parachute petticoat be a legend if the story was documented in the media? This is actually another characteristic of legend. Many urban legends have been reported on in the media as though they were true. Take for example the century-old legend of the alligators that supposedly infest the sewers of New York City. 

Having made the news repeatedly over the years, it was first reported in a 1907 article that described a worker in Kearny, a New Jersey town about 12 miles from Midtown Manhattan, who was bitten by a small gator while he cleaned out a sewer. The media often legitimises a legend by reporting on it and by doing so, helps transmit it. 

It’s said that journalists came from St. John’s to interview the Jane Phillips and her mother for the papers. I suspect this story is a local legend but would love to find evidence that it actually occurred. If you’ve heard this story before, please feel free to reach out! 

Nicole R. Penney 
Archival Assistant 
Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA) 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Barbary Pirates, Sallee Rovers, and the Legend of Turk's Gut. #FolkloreThursday

The community of Marysvale, Conception Bay, was originally known as Turk's Gut. The exact origin of the name is lost in the mists of time. But many legends have sprung up over the centuries to account for it, and most of them agree on the name being linked to the seventeenth-century history of piracy in the waters of Conception Bay. One of the earliest and shortest accounts comes to us from the Most Rev. Michael Francis Howley, in his “Newfoundland Name-Lore” column in the Newfoundland Quarterly, March, 1907. He writes,

Near Brigus we have Turk's Gut. In explaining the name of St. Barbes, I mentioned that in early days our seas were infested by pirates from Barbary. These terrible corsairs, who did much damage around our coasts, were called by the old English settlers by the generic name of Turks, and the names above mentioned record the memory of some adventure, or landing by them in these harbours.

By 1949, the legend had expanded slightly. In that year’s Christmas Annual, writer LEF English noted,

The Sallee Rovers... were supposed to have their lairs on the Barbary Coast in Africa. The vessels were partly manned by Turks, but many renegade French and English took service with these organized robbers. Some of their ships operated in Newfoundland waters as shown by the records. We see then that pirates actually did visit Newfoundland and that the possibility of treasure trove on lonely headlands or in sheltered bays is after all not so remote. There still exist some relics of those old sea rovers, for instance the name Turk's Gut near Brigus recalls a legend that the Sallee raiders once had there a quiet rendezvous. Spanish doubloons and pieces of eight still hold a fascination, and there is no doubt that he who goes treasure hunting in Newfoundland will find at least enough hair raising stories to reward his efforts, and maybe, maybe, will uncover the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Writer and publisher PJ Wakeham expanded the story for inclusion in his New Land Magazine in 1962, and again in 1968. Wakeham spins a bloodthirsty yarn, likely based more on his own imagination than on historical fact. In his version the pirate not only gains a name, Isstovatison, but also gains a captive, Madame LaBlonc, the wife of a French naval officer. Isstovatison’s ship is wrecked, a treasure is recovered and buried, and the ship’s cannons are used to fortify the pirate’s lair. All is well till Admiral LaBlonc sails to Newfoundland to save his wife from the Turk’s clutches:

Realizing that his end was at hand, the infuriated pirate turned and thrust a heavy cutlass into the breast of Madame LaBlonc, and putting a loaded pistol to his own head, he blew his brains out before he could be restrained. When Admiral LaBlonc entered the pirate’s hide-out, he found his wife badly wounded and beside her body lay the crumpled body of the Pirate of Turk’s Gut. Despite the best of medical care, Madame LaBlonc died that afternoon onboard her husband’s ship just as the shadows of night were closing in over Conception Bay.

Do you know a different version of the legend of Turk's Gut? I'd love to hear from you if you do! Email me at or comment below!

- Dale Jarvis

Monday, October 7, 2013

Bristol's Hope and the Salmon of Knowledge

There is an old Irish story about the Salmon of Knowledge. According to the legend, an ordinary salmon ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom from the nine hazel trees that surrounded the well. Because of this, the salmon gained all the world's knowledge, and it was said that the first person to eat its flesh would, in turn, gain this knowledge.

A young Finn McCool, destined to become a great leader and warrior, was sent to study under the wise man Finnegas, who had spent years trying to catch the salmon. Not long after Finn came to him, Finnegas caught the salmon, and ordered Finn to cook it, but not to eat any of it. As Finn cooked it, it burned his fingers, so he put his thumb into his mouth to ease the pain. In this way, Finn acquired all the wisdom of the world, and not old Finnegas.  In a story from Wales, the famed poet Taliesin received his wisdom in a similar way.

I drove home tonight from Bristol's Hope, thinking about those old tales, of Finn McCool, of Taliesin, and of Ida Skinner.

I was in Bristol's Hope to help out with the start of an oral history project. The local heritage committee is working on a few projects which I've mentioned here before. Tonight, I met with Richard Johnson and Don Skinner, to get them started on their interviewing techniques.

Don's mother, Mrs. Ida Skinner, was our "test subject" tonight, and I showed the men how to do a folklore interview by having a fabulous chat with Ida, which ranged from her early memories of growing up at the Point in Bristol's Hope, her family's fishing business, the raising of sheep, of carding and spinning, schooldays and recess games at the old one-room schoolhouse, and of holidays and charming away warts.

At the end of our conversation, Richard asked Mrs. Skinner to pick one thing she would bring back from her early years in the community if she could.

"We used to be as one," she said, without pausing to think. It was something she had mentioned at a few points throughout our conversation, noting that in her youth, the entire community, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, had worked together for clearing snow along the road in winter, to provide education for the children of the community, and in making sure everyone had food to eat.

"We used to be as one," she said. And then she told a story.

Mrs. Skinner's father and her two older brothers had been successful fishermen, who had invested their earnings in a larger boat, and who sold their catch for export to the Moores family in Carbonear. 

During salmon season, her family, and other men in Bristol's Hope would set their traps and catch whatever salmon they could. As the salmon season progressed, the number of salmon turning up in the traps would decrease. It was then that her father and the other men did something that stuck in her memory. They would take that year's last catch of salmon, and distribute it to every household in the community that didn't have a salmon trap. Everyone got salmon, not just the men who had worked for it and who would profit from the selling of it, but every single family in Bristol's Hope. 

And it is that sense of fairness, compassion and community that Mrs. Skinner would pick to bring forward into today's world. It seems like a wise idea to me.

(Illustration by Wenceslas Hollar, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Isaac Mercer Murder Gate, Bay Roberts

The ICH office is currently working with the Bay Roberts Cultural Foundation on a project to record local stories. While the focus is on stories and memories concerning folk belief, traditional cures and charms, and superstitions, we are also recording some general oral histories with locals.

Last Friday, I sat down with local historian and author Mike Flynn to talk about the Bay Roberts of yesteryear. Mike had lots of stories, including some great bits of local folklore, including legends about the Devil and buried treasure.

We also had a chat about janneying (mummering) in the region, and in particular, about the murder of Isaac Mercer by mummers in December 1860. You can read a bit more about that case here.

After we talked, Mike took me to see an old wrought-iron gate, the location where the murder took place a century and a half ago. It is near a spot once known as Wilcox's Lane, a now mostly-forgotten laneway that today is on private property. It is a spot I've driven past hundreds of times, but which I'd never explored. It is a good example of the history that is right under our noses, and often overlooked. So here it is, in the photo above, the gate to the former Wilcox's Lane, with Mike Flynn standing guard.

The interview with Mike will eventually be up on Memorial University's Digital Archives Initiative, as part of our ICH inventory, in the Bay Roberts collection. Stay tuned!