“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
Two young officers named Captain John Coape Sherbrooke and Lieutenant George Wynyard, enrolled in the British Army List of 1785 in foreign service with the 33rd Regiment commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Forke and stationed in Sydney, on the island of Cape Breton, off Nova Scotia, found themselves to be fast friends and kindred spirits in intellectual pursuits. “They were connected by similarity of tastes and studies, and spent together, in literary occupation, much of that vacant time which was squandered by their brother officers, in those excesses of the table, which, some forty years ago, were considered among the necessary accomplishments of the military character” (Ennemoser, 1854, p382). Later in their careers, Wynyard would be promoted to General and Sherbrooke would become Governor General of British North America in 1816, but as aspiring young officers in Atlantic Canada, of impeccable character and eminent rationality, they shared a troubling encounter with an apparition that would haunt them for the rest of their days.
On the 15th of October, 1785, about 4 P.M., thus in daylight, the two young officers, having just dined, but abstaining from alcohol, retired to their shared quarters in the officers barracks for a leisurely evening of rest, relaxation, and reading, as both were studious men with a thirst for knowledge. “The apartment in which they were had two doors in it, the one opening into a passage, and the other leading into Wynyard’s bedroom: there were no means of entering the sitting room but from the passage, and no other egress from the bedroom but through the sitting room; so that any person passing into the bedroom must have remained there, unless he returned by the way he entered” (Jarvis, 1823, p28-34).
Captain Sherbrooke was thoroughly engrossed in his book, but incidentally glanced up at the door which opened onto the passage and “observed a tall youth, of about twenty years of age, whose appearance was that of extreme emaciation, standing beside it. Struck with the appearance of a perfect stranger, he immediately turned to his friend, who was sitting near him, and directed his attention to the guest who had thus strangely broken in upon their studies. As soon as Wynyard’s eyes were turned toward the mysterious visitor, his countenance became suddenly agitated: ‘I have heard,’ says Sir John Sherbrooke, ‘of a man’s being as pale as death, but I never saw a living face assume the appearance of a corpse, except Wynyard’s at that moment’. As they looked silently at the form before them—for Wynyard, who seemed to apprehend the import of the appearance, was deprived of the faculty of speech, and Sherbrooke, perceiving the agitation of his friend, felt no inclination to address it—as they looked silently upon the figure, it proceeded slowly into the adjoining apartment, and, in the act of passing them, cast its eyes with a somewhat melancholy expression on young Wynyard” (Day, 1848, p20-23).
Sherbrooke was puzzled although did not immediately assume he was in the presence of anything supernatural, but Wynyard was rendered speechless. “The oppression of this extraordinary presence was no sooner removed than Wynyard, seizing his friend by the arm, and drawing a deep breath as if recovering from the suffocation of intense astonishment and emotion, muttered in a low and almost inaudible tone of voice, ‘Great God, my brother!’ ‘Your brother!’ repeated Sherbrooke, ‘what can you mean? Wynyard, there must be some deception; follow me;’ and immediately taking his friend by the arm, he preceded him into the bedroom, which, as before stated, was connected with the sitting-room, and into which the strange visitor had evidently entered. It has already been said that from this chamber there was no possibility of withdrawing but by the way of the apartment, through which the figure had certainly never returned. Imagine then the astonishment of the young officers when, on finding themselves in the chamber, they perceived that the room was perfectly untenanted. Wynyard’s mind had received an impression at the first moment of his observing him, that the figure whom he had seen was the spirit of his brother. Sherbrooke still persevered in strenuously believing that some delusion had been practiced. They took note of the day and hour in which the event had happened, but they resolved not to mention the occurrence in the regiment, and gradually they persuaded each other that they had been imposed upon by some artifice of their fellow-officers, though they could neither account for the means of its execution” (Lee, 1875, p28-31). Sherbrooke and Wynyard were practical soldiers and temporarily convinced themselves that they had experienced some sort of folie à deux, opting to keep the incident to themselves, but they nonetheless awaited the arrival of mail from England with a great deal of anxiety. Wynyard became increasingly agitated to the point that their brother officers took note, and pried the story from him, and it became the topic of much discussion in the regiment. Everyone breathlessly awaited the arrival of the next mail packet.
The mail finally arrived, and Wynyard breathed a momentary sigh of relief, as there was no mail for him. This respite was short-lived. “When the long expected mail at length arrived, there were no letters for Wynyard, but one for Sherbrooke. As soon as he had opened the packet, he beckoned his friend from the room. Expectation was at its climax during the hour in which the two friends remained closeted together. On their return to the mess room the mystery was solved. The letter for Sherbrooke was from a brother officer in England, the first line of which read thus: ‘Dear John, break to your friend Wynyard the death of his favorite brother.’ He had suddenly expired on the very day, and making due allowance for difference of latitude, at the very time at which the friends saw the apparition in Canada” (Eaton, 1920, p121-125).
“Some years after, on Sherbrooke’s return to England, he was walking with two gentlemen in Piccadilly, when on the opposite side of the way, he saw a person bearing the most striking resemblance to the figure which had been disclosed to Wynyard and himself. His companions were acquainted with the story, and he instantly directed their attention to the gentleman opposite, as the individual who had contrived to enter and depart from Wynyard’s apartment without their being conscious of the means. Full of this impression, he immediately went over, and at once addressed the gentleman; he now fully expected to elucidate the mystery. He apologised for the interruption, but excused it by relating the occurrence which had induced him to the commission of this solecism in manners. The gentleman received him as a friend. He had never been out of the country, but he was another brother of the youth whose spirit had been seen” (Ingram, 1884, p304-309).
Both Wynyard and Sherbrooke unabashedly retold the story many times over the years. In 1823, a fellow officer at the time of the incident, Lieutenant-Colonel Gore, gave an account in writing to Sir John Harvey, Adjutant-General of the Forces in Canada, and the honor and veracity of both Wynyard and Sherbrooke was repeatedly attested to by their contemporaries. It is interesting to note that before the phantom encounter in Canada, Sherbrooke had never seen Wynyard’s brother.
Reports of apparitions of the dead to close relatives in distant places at the time of their death are surprisingly common. Is there something about the bonds of blood that facilitates such communications? Perhaps, ghosts recognize that it is their family who will remember them, and that memory must combine with whatever ether ghosts exist in to breathe life into the living dead, or as Octavio Paz said, “I think we all have our own personality, unique and distinctive, and at the same time, I think that our own unique and distinctive personality blends with the wind, with the footsteps in the street, with the noises around the corner, and with the silence of memory, which is the great producer of ghosts”.
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