“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” – Edgar Allan Poe
There are a lot of bad ways to die. Dying in a mine explosion seems like a particularly bad way to go, but as novelist Tawni O’Dell observed, “Mining is a dangerous profession. There’s no way to make a mine completely safe: These are the words owners have always used to excuse needless deaths and the words miners use to prepare for them”. So maybe mining need not be as dangerous as it is, but it certainly presents a lot of opportunities for an untimely demise from cave-ins, to premature explosions, to asphyxiation. They’ve been mining in Cornwall since the Bronze Age (roughly 2150 B.C.), so the Cornish kind of know what to expect. This may even extend to mangled miners returning as a pack of phantom dogs.
The Wheal Vor Mine is about a mile west of Breage, Cornwall, producing mainly copper and tin beginning in the 15th Century A.D., and is widely thought to be the first mine in Cornwall to make use of gunpowder. The mine was only permanently closed in 1967, but in the 19th Century it was a growing concern, described as the “ancient and well known mine of Wheal Vor, situated on an elevated plain of chloritic slate immediately East of Tiegoning Hill, an isolated body of granite, has, perhaps, afforded more tin ore than any other land of equal extent in Cornwall” (Collins, 1888, p28). An account in the August 29, 1856 Royal Cornwall Gazette mentioned a coroner’s inquest into an accident at the Wheal Vor Mine resulting in the deaths of a number of miners (specifically mentioned is John Richards, aged 39), and the deaths attributed to a sudden and premature explosion of a hole he and a young apprentice were preparing. There are a lot of things that can happen prematurely that are inconvenient or merely embarrassing (say, like your in-laws arriving early, you prurient bastards). Explosions are not among them. You never really look your best after being caught up in an explosion, thus there was a certain sensitivity to the feelings of the relatives that rushed to the scene.
There was an accident in a Cornish mine whereby several men lost their lives, and, rather than that their relatives should be shocked at the sight of their mangled remains, some bystander, with all the best intentions in the world, threw the bodies into a ﬁre (O’Donnell, p90, 1911).
I suppose that in the moment it seemed prudent to quickly dispose of the horrifying corpses of the unfortunate men who were ripped apart by the mine explosion, but the consequences of such an action seemed to have preternatural echoes.
As soon as help could be procured, a party descended, but the remains of the poor fellows were discovered to be mutilated beyond recognition. On being brought up to the surface, the clothes and a mass of mangled flesh dropped from the bodies. A bystander, anxious to spare the feelings of the relatives present, quickly cast the unsightly mass into the blazing furnace of an engine close at hand. But ever since that day the engineman positively asserted that troops of little black dogs continually haunted the locality (Dyer, 1893, p108).
One supposes there are worse things to come back as than a phantom dog, say like a mutilated corpse. A more detailed account was eventually provided by a certain Robert Hunt in his review of local folklore, which included the repercussion of it being difficult to hire folks to run the engine in which the bodies had been burned for any length of time due to “hounding” by a phantom pack of black dogs.
A man and a lad were engaged in sinking a shaft at Wheal Vor Mine, when the lad, through carelessness or accident, missed in charging a hole, so that a necessity arose for the dangerous operation of picking out the charge. This they proceeded to do, the man severely reprimanding the carelessness of his assistant. Several other miners at the time being about to change their core, were on the plat above, calling down and conversing occasionally with man and boy. Suddenly the charge exploded, and the latter were seen to be thrown up in the midst of a volume of flame. As soon as help could be pro cured, a party descended, when the remains of the poor fellows were found to be shattered and scorched beyond recognition. When these were brought to the surface, the clothes and a mass of mangled flesh dropped from the bodies. A by stander, to spare the feelings of the relatives, hastily caught up the revolting mass in a shovel, and threw the whole into the blazing furnace of Woolf’s engine, close at hand. From that time the enginemen declared that troops of little black dogs continually haunted the place, even when the doors were shut (Hunt, 1865, p126).
The most obvious recommendation is to avoid mines, particularly ones where they are blowing things up. Prematurely burning bodies is probably not such a good idea either. The upside is that a dog’s life is not so bad. A phantom dog’s life is probably pretty even cooler, on the canine spectrum of eat, sleep, and play. Dogs are generally happier than humans, so dog afterlife must be comparably better, for as James Thurber said, “The dog has got more fun out of Man than Man has got out of the dog, for the clearly demonstrable reason that Man is the more laughable of the two animals”.
Collins, J. H. (Joseph Henry), 1841-1916. On Cornish Tin-stones And Tin-capels. Truro: Lake and Lake, 1888.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton (Thomas Firminger Thiselton), 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Hunt, Robert, 1807-1887, and George Cruikshank. Popular Romances of the West of England, or, the Drolls, Traditions and Superstitions of Old Cornwall. London: John Camden Hotten, 1865.
O’Donnell, Elliott, 1872-1965. Byways of Ghost-land. London: W. Rider, 1911.
Royal Cornwall Gazette, p8, col 4. August 29,1856.
Sounds like the folks in Midget Village on Pinnacle Mountain let their tiny dogs out.
Why does the impact of the story seem to hinge on the appearance and number of the phantom dogs? I assume the dogs had to be black because the bodies of the miners were burned. It also makes sense that there was more than one phantom dog insofar as more than one miner was killed. The adjective “little” argues against hostile intent. The overall effect of a “troop of little black dogs” doesn’t really evoke fear. Sort of like a “troop of schnoodles.”