Canada is a nation of extremes. The vast country boasts some of the most cultured cities in the world, while at the same time its farthest reaches are among the most beautiful, untouched wildernesses anywhere on Earth. Canadians are also the custodians of numerous unsettling enigmas buried deep in their history. This article delves into a series of Canada’s most bizarre and creepy unsolved mysteries, from unexplained murders to mysterious fires and eerie natural phenomena that continue to baffle scientists.
Canadian Mysteries: The Salt Spring Island Murders
William Robinson, a Sunday school teacher, was murdered in 1868. One of a group of African-American settlers that had come to the Salt Spring Island in British Columbia a decade before, he – and others – were looking to secure their livelihood as farmers. Shot in the back at close range in his own home, suspicion quickly fell on an Aboriginal man named Tshuanahusset. He was found guilty and executed.
In retrospect, Tshuanahusset’s guilt seems unlikely at best. Racial tensions gripped the area at the time, and it’s not insignificant that Robinson was black, Tshuanahusset was Aboriginal, and the jury that convicted him was entirely white. No one else was ever investigated, in spite of the fact that there were witnesses who testified Tshuanahusset had been with them at the time of the murder.
His execution didn’t end the conflict, either, and eight months after Robinson was killed Giles Curtis was also murdered, in his home. He too had been shot, and even at the time people drew comparisons between the two murders. Who really killed these men, and did the murderer die free?
Who Really Burned Montreal in 1734?
Marie-Joseph Angelique was a black slave born in Portugal and living in Montreal in the 1730s. When a fire tore through the city’s merchant district in 1734, Angelique was blamed. According to her accusers, she and her lover, Claude Thibault, had set the fire to cover their would-be escape. After requesting her freedom and being refused, she was to be sold to a man in Quebec City in exchange for 600 pounds of gunpowder. Rumours circulated that he was going to sell her in the West Indies, so the two decided to set fire to her bed, leaving it to spread and distract others from their escape.
After a six week trial, Angelique was found guilty and sentenced to torture and execution. She had maintained their innocence and only confessed when torturers crushed her leg, but never placed any blame on Thibault. Marie-Joseph Angelique was hanged, gibbeted and then burned. The story might have ended there, but there was never any concrete evidence that Angelique had started the 1734 fire that ripped through Old Montreal in this much debated Canadian mystery. Or did she?
What Happened to “Jolly Jack” Thornton’s Gold Mine?
In the second half of the 19th century, countless people were trying to change their lives by seeking their fortunes in gold. Boundary Creek had potential, but when it failed to yield the precious metal it was abandoned within a year of the first claim being staked there. All but one man, at least, and that was John “Jolly Jack” Thornton.
Thornton never seemed to enjoy the riches that would have come with success in mining, but this is where the story gets a little mysterious. He kept digging at his Boundary Creek claim until at least 1894, when he was 70-years-old. One day, Jolly Jack came home carrying gold nuggets. When the nuggets were gone, he simply took his horse and went in search of more.
Thornton died in 1903, having never told anyone where he had found his gold. Some insist that there’s still a secret location out there somewhere, while others suggest there was no gold mine at all, and it was just a tall tale. Either way, the legend remains one of Canadian Boundary Country’s classic unsolved mysteries.
Who Massacred the Black Donnellys?
The Donnelly family left County Tipperary in Ireland for Ontario in 1842, and they settled in Biddulph, Ontario to almost immediate controversy. Over the next year, there’s a list of conflicts spanning James Donnelly’s murder of a man named Patrick Farrell to theft, trespassing, and assault that all builds into arson and more questionable deaths. On February 3rd and 4th of 1880, the ongoing trouble came to a head when members of the so-called Vigilance Society went to the Donnelly house and, by morning, five family members were dead. What remained of them fit in a single casket.
After the massacre, the unsolved murder became the subject of lively debate. Theories on who killed the co-called Black Donnellys ranged from intelligent businessmen to dangerous, backwoods thugs, and those put on trial for the murders were found not guilty. Over the years, the myth and legend has become even more tangled. There remains no clear answer as to what happened to the family in what has become a bizarre unsolved Canadian murder mystery.
Who Built the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter?
(Image: Nicole L. Hornett)
On the Alberta Register of Historic Places is a weird little spot that no one really knows the story behind. The Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter was built in the early 1900s, and made the list because of its importance in the history of those who first settled Canada’s prairies. Little more than a small, underground chamber with a staircase and a door that sticks up from the earthen mound that covers it, nobody knows who built the shelter.
Estimated to have been built between 1900 and 1905, the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter was likely the temporary residence of homesteaders before they built their main home. Similar structures have been found, but many of those remain on existing properties and the sites of other homes. After homesteaders moved into the main houses, the deserted temporary accommodation was often used as storm shelters or root cellars. But the history of the Sunnyslope Sandstone Shelter remains mysterious.
The Murder of John Paul Radelmuller
(Image: SJ Elliott)
This unsolved Canadian mystery is known as Toronto’s oldest cold case, a murder that occurred in 1815. On January 2nd that year, the story goes, bootlegger and brewer John Paul Radelmuller was visited by two soldiers looking for a drink. An argument took place, and the soldiers killed Radelmuller, burying him by the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse. But like many cases of historic murder, it’s not as clear-cut as that.
Radelmuller was born in Bavaria, and arrived in Canada in 1804. He established a school, got married and, according to some historical evidence, he wasn’t even a bootlegger. Instead, the York Gazette reported his murder as a horrible crime against a decent, quiet man, and listed the names of the accused as John Blowman (Blueman) and John Henry.
Blowman and Henry plead not guilty, and were acquitted. That’s essentially all we know (the trial records have been lost), and the tall tale told about the murder was only written down around a century after it happened. The real story remains an enigma.
British Columbia’s 16 Human Feet
(Image: Dennis Bratland)
This Canadian mystery is recent enough that it could possibly still be solved. Or perhaps more feet will wash up on the shores of British Columbia. The grisly discoveries began on August 20, 2007, when a girl found a size 12 Adidas shoe with a foot inside.
Over the next few years (and including a recent discovery on February 12, 2016), 16 more human feet were discovered on the shores of BC. Some of the victims have been identified, even though no complete corpses (or other body parts) have turned up. It’s been suggested that ocean currents might have something to do with it, having carried the feet long distances. But that’s not really an acceptable conclusion to the crime.
Weirder still is the idea that this isn’t a new phenomenon. At least two other feet have been found on the shores of British Columbia in the past; one in 1914 (near the mouth of the Salmon River) and another near Vancouver in 1887. Theories range from drug deals gone bad to human trafficking, but most of the severed feet remain unidentified.
What’s Going on in the Grove of Crooked Trees?
This one’s a different kind of Canadian unsolved mystery: a natural one. About three miles west of Alticane in Saskatchewan is a grove of aspen trees that look nothing like aspen trees should. They’re known as the Crooked Trees, or the Twisted Trees, and that’s exactly what they are.
The grove of crooked trees, as its name suggests, stands twisted and grotesquely bent out of shape. The aspens’ appearance was only noted around the 1940s, and many explanations – ranging from a meteorite to soil contamination – have been put forward to explain the strange natural landmark. (It’s worth mentioning that aspens on the other side of the road grow normally.)
Some believe that a UFO buzzed by the trees and mutated them – which may not be quite so bizarre as it sounds. When the University of Manitoba examined the weird grove of twisted trees, it found that the aspens were likely connected by underground shoots, while some sort of genetic mutation caused their strange growth pattern. While it’s not as romantic an explanation as the idea that the grove was once home to a group of giant rabbits that fed on the trees’ sap and twisted their branches, it’s the best we’ve got.
Did Francis Drake Discover British Columbia?
(Image: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)
Sir Francis Drake was credited with a journey around the world, his fight against the Spanish, and his exploration of the California coast. That’s the official story, at least, but one small find has led some to suggest that Drake was hiding something, giving rise to an intriguing Canadian mystery.
In 2014, a coin was found on the coast of British Columbia – much further north than Drake was ever thought to have ventured. Marks on the centuries-old coin allowed historians to date it from between 1551 and 1553, and the enigmatic artifact is the third one to be found along the BC coast. Did Drake’s expedition really venture further north than he had reported?
Drake was a popular figure during his lifetime and history is clear on what his accepted story is, but some historians believe the coins are proof that Drake not only visited British Columbia, but that he didn’t tell anyone about it either. The secret was likely kept on purpose, some argue, and wasn’t shared to keep the knowledge out of Spanish hands.
What is the Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait?
(Image: National Maritime Museum)
According to many witnesses, a ghost ship haunts the waters of Northumberland Strait in eastern Canada. Sightings go back to at least 1786, and witnesses describe a white-masted ship that is engulfed in flames as it sails along. Most sightings happen in September, October and November, and over the years some crews have even organized rescue efforts in the belief that a real vessel was burning off the coast.
The spectral ship supposedly disappears as people approach, and no corresponding shipwreck has ever been found. Some even claim to have seen figures scrambling about on deck, adding an additional level of detail to this unsolved Canadian mystery.
Several explanations have been put forward to explain the strange activity in Northumberland Strait. Scientists have suggest that the area is prone to a particular electrical phenomenon that causes light to appear to be rising from the surface in columns that look a lot like masts. Other explanations include fog and the reflection of moonlight, but precisely what’s going on remains a mystery.
Looking for more unsolved mysteries from the Great White North? Check our our features on The Strange Tale of Jerome of Sandy Cove and the Strange Tale of the Disappearing Village of Angikuni Lake.