Author Archives: Larry Dohey

The First Giant Squid


October 25, 1873


On July 7, 2011 Canada Post launched the Glovers Harbour Squid stamp which features a 55-foot (16.8 metre) giant squid statue from Glovers Harbour.


On 25 October 1873 a fisherman, Theophilus Picot fishing off Bell Island in Conception Bay, had a battle with a giant squid. This battle resulted in the first giant squid specimen to be studied scientifically on land!

It was Alexander Murray, the first Director of the Geological Survey of Newfoundland who brought the story to the attention of the international scientific community.

A few weeks following the fisherman’s battle with the giant squid Mr.  Murray, wrote to Louis Agassiz, Professor of Zoology at Harvard University.  In the letter he explained that the fisherman Picot

 ” struck at it  (the squid, at the time he had no idea what it was)  with an oar or boat-hook, whereupon the creature’s fury seemed to be aroused, and it struck at the bottom of the boat with its beak, and immediately afterward threw its monstrous tentacles over the boat, which probably it might have dragged to the bottom had not Picot with great presence of mind severed one of the tentacles with his axe.”

Mr. Murray had more than a story he also included:

 “a couple of photographs of the said tentacle and a few of the small denticulated sucking cups.”

The reference to the  battle with the giant squid  first appeared the prestigious publication scientific journalThe American Naturalist’  8 (1874), 120-124. under the tile “Capture of a Gigantic Squid at Newfoundland.”

This was the first of the giant squid to be documented. Over the years their have been others. At the Rooms Provincial Museum a giant squid that was originally caught November 14, 1981 in Hare Bay, Bonavista Bay, is on display.  The last giant squid caught in Newfoundland waters was in Triton in 2004 and there was another found in Sandy Cove, Fogo Island, in 1982.

On July 7, 2011 Canada Post launched the Glovers Harbour Squid stamp which features a 55-foot (16.8 metre) giant squid statue from Glovers Harbour. It is a life-size replica of the World’s Largest Giant Squid (Guinness Book record) that was landed nearby on November 2, 1878.

Recommended Reading: Aldrich, F. A., and Brown, E. L. 1967. “The Giant Squid in Newfoundland,” The Newfoundland Quarterly. Vol. LXV No. 3. p. 4-8.

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online database at The Rooms  for descriptions of our archival records and to view thousands of digital photographs.

Recommended Exhibit:  At the Rooms see the exhibit “Beneath the Sea”  this exhibit features a 29-foot-long giant squid,  which was found by a fisherman in Hare Bay, Nov 10, 1981.



The healing potential of the Pitcher Plant

October 20, 1891

Archival Moment

Floral NewfOn October 20, 1891 Henry Clift a well-known barrister from Harbour Grace,  in a letter in the St. John’s newspaper, The Evening Telegram,  mused about the potential of plants that grew in Newfoundland and wondered why the medical community in the colony were  not exploring their medicinal potential.  The letter sets Henry Clift apart as one of the first to see the potential of pharmaceutical drugs in Newfoundland flora.

The young lawyer was driven to write the letter because he was amused that residents of St. John’s and his home town Harbour Grace were buying up all of the concoctions that were being sold by the visiting Kickapoo Company. The Kickapoo was an Indian medicine show that employed American Indians, supposedly Kickapoo’s, to tour Newfoundland demonstrating Indian life, and selling their medicines. They has set up shop in the Star of the Sea Hall on Henry Street with good audiences and brisk sales of their products.

Clift in his letter to the Editor argued that before the arrival of the Europeans to Newfoundland,  “when our native Indians became sick how did they cure themselves … the  answer is surely by the plants and the roots, herbs, bark of trees etc. of our native land.:”

Clift continued that there was in fact historical proof that there was healing qualities in the roots and berries that were gown in the colony. He wrote that as far back as July and August 1863 the St. John’s newspaper, The Times, had reported that “a certain Lieutenant Hardy of the Royal Artillery showed that Surgeon Logan had cured eleven men of the Regiment of smallpox by the use of the roots of the Pitcher Plant or rather a due concoction thereof.”

He continued that we were not to stop with the medicinal and pharmacological potential of the Pitcher Plant but should also “dilate here on the virtue of the wild cherry bark, dogberry bark, and berry, sarsaparilla, snake root, bog bean and the root of our beautiful perfumed, N. odorata or pond lily, etc.”

The good lawyer was well read and was aware that Reverend A.C. Waghorne  an Anglican Missionary priest working in Newfoundland  “has done good work on the botany of our native land and it is high time that the medical botany thereof should be more attended to than it is, and that we should open up  a way of relief  to the poor and the sick and to help people out of their coffins.“ Wayhorne had published extensively on Newfoundland flora in the local papers.

The coffins that Clift was referring to were for those that were succumbing to the full fury of the diphtheria epidemic. The Board of Health for the Colony of Newfoundland in 1889 reported that 1,881 cases of diphtheria affecting 878 families and resulting in 350 deaths. For 1890 and 1891 the number of deaths was 133 and 140 respectively. By April, 1892, when diphtheria had all but disappeared from St. John’s, the number of deaths for the first three months of that year was 23. Clift reported that the “cautionary sick signal is hoisted” on many homes.

To eradicate such an epidemic Clift was  suggesting that the medical community should consider the medicinal value of plants like the Pitcher Plant for consideration in the medical arsenal.

The Pitcher Plant was declared the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1954, this strange plant appeared on the new Newfoundland penny in 1880. The Pitcher Plant, also called Sarracenis Purpurea, is found primarily in bogs and marshland throughout the province. It has one large wine-red flower with a red and gold centre and hollow pitcher-shaped leaves which are attached to the base of the stem. As an insectivorous plant, it feeds off the insects which become trapped inside the leaves when they fill with water.

Recommended Archival Collection:   Search the online database for descriptions  at The Rooms for archival records and to view thousands of digital photographs. Search the Archives:

Recommended Reading: Home Medicine: The Newfoundland Experience by John K. Crellin . Based on material from the Folklore Archives at Memorial University  Crellin looks at the interplay between mainstream physicians and alternative treatments, and the effect of folk beliefs on today’s self-care practices, Crellin examines how the advent of modern medicine has affected self-treatment.


A haunting evocative evening in the theatre

the-weir-flyerTHE WEIR

by Conor McPherson

A haunting evocative evening in the theatre

In a remote country pub in Ireland, newcomer Valerie arrives and becomes spellbound by an evening of ghostly stories told by the local bachelors who drink there. With a whiff of sexual tension in the air and the wind whistling outside, what starts out as blarney soon turns dark as the tales drift into the realm of the supernatural. Then, Valerie reveals a startling story of her own….

Conor McPherson’s The Weir is a haunting evocative evening in the theatre you will never forget. Tickets are available $30 at the LSPU Hall.

November 1 -5 at 8PM

MATINEE: Saturday, November 5 at 2:00pm

Book your ticket on line at

All proceeds go towards “Team Broken Earth” and their work in rebuilding Haiti. Read More:


“A friend of the lunatics”

October 18, 1900

Archival Moment

The Waterford Hospital was once known as the Lunatic Asylum

The Waterford Hospital was once known as the Lunatic Asylum

Walking past the “Lunatic Asylum” (now known as the Waterford Hospital) citizens were gladdened that officials were “endeavoring to get a water supply to the building’  but upon closer inspection they were  not so happy to discover that it was the “poor unfortunate inmates” of the hospital that were doing the work!!

The lot of the ‘lunatics” in the early 19th century was not a happy one. They were often confined to basements, attics and jails under the most wretched conditions and it was only with the founding of the St. John‘s public hospital in 1813 that a separate ward was established for them.

With the opening of the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ on Waterford Bridge Road, St. John’s in 1854 as the Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases it was thought that the lot of the lunatics would improve. “A friend of the Lunatics” in October 1900 was not so confident that advances had been made.   In a letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram he wrote that he was walking past the hospital and “was troubled to find that its poor unfortunate inmates, are compelled to dig from early morning till late at night, endeavoring to get a water supply to the building.”

He was so appalled at the situation that he demanded “that the Board of Works institute an enquiry into the management of the Lunatic Asylum.”

He wrote “Is it fair to the inmates of that institution to have them wading in water, digging over half a mile for this supply.  I say it is not, and the person in charge ought to be brought to account for his conduct.”

The initiatives that were coming under criticism were likely instituted by Dr. Lawrence Keegan who believed that having the patients working was a positive and effective form of occupational therapy, he felt that some patients did benefit from working especially the able-bodied.  Keegan who had been on tour of asylums in Great Britain, England, Scotland and Ireland in 1899 and had consulted with British experts that saw value in physical work.

The ‘friend of the Lunatics’ concluded his letter to the Editor of the Evening Telegram:

“We have an engineer who is competent to improve the method of said water supply.  Why should the doctor (Lawrence Keegan) be consulted, he is not there for that purpose. Let him attend to the strawberry beds and try to help the revenue in that way, but leave the water supply to Mr. (Hubert C.) Burchell, (Newfoundland Government Engineer from 1884 to 1905) who I am certain, who is not in favor of employing lunatics to take the bread from the mouths of taxpayers.”

The practice was soon discontinued, the new administrator of the Asylum, Dr. James Sinclair Tait believed that this type of occupational therapy was ineffective and fiscally unsound and had such new initiatives cancelled.

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online data base – use key words – lunatic and Waterford.

Recommended Reading: Out of Mind, Out of Sight by Patricia O’Brien: A History of the Waterford Hospital. St. John’s: Breakwater Books; 1989.

Old Word: Middle English: from Old French lunatique, from late Latin lunaticus, from Latin luna ‘moon’ (from the belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity)

Remembering and revitalizing the “rooms” of a fishing village.

Old Coast, New Coast: Petty Harbour, Newfoundland

Remembering and revitalizing the “rooms” of a fishing village.

The Rooms

The Rooms

Published October 14, 2016

Sitting on the edge of the dock, swinging their legs back and forth, children eagerly await the return of their fathers. The fishermen left at sunrise, guiding their small boats out to fertile inshore fishing grounds to pull in cod with handlines. Read More:

World War II came home to Newfoundland.


October 14, 1942

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: C 2-48; Remember the SS Caribou and Her Gallant Crew

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: C 2-48; Remember the SS Caribou and Her Gallant Crew

In the early morning hours of October 14, 1942 a lone German torpedo from the German submarine U69 hit the  SS Caribou,  the Sydney to Port aux Basques ferry on  route to Newfoundland, under Captain Benjamin Tavenor.  World War II came home to Newfoundland.

Immediately following the hit chaos ensued as passengers, thrown from their bunks by the explosion rushed topside to the lifeboat stations.

Of the 237 people aboard the Caribou when she left North Sydney, 136 had perished. Fifty-seven were military personnel and 49 were civilians. Of the 46-man crew, mostly Newfoundlanders, only 15 remained. Five families suffered particularly heavy losses: the Tappers (5 dead), the Toppers (4), the Allens (3), the Tavernors (the captain and his two sons), and the Skinners (3). The local press reported:

 “Many Families [were] Wiped Out.”

News of the sinking sparked much outrage as victims,  friends and families, and the populace at large, condemned the Nazis for targeting a passenger ferry. An editorialist with The Royalist newspaper in St. John’s wrote that the sinking:

“was such a useless crime from the point of view of warfare. It will have no effect upon the course of the war except to steel our resolve that the Nazi blot on humanity must be eliminated from our world.”

The Channel/Port aux Basques area was the worst hit as many crew members of the Caribou were local men. A funeral on October 18 for six victims was attended by hundreds of mourners, and a procession that followed the bodies to the grave sites reportedly measured two kilometres long.

Recommended Archival Collection:  Search the Rooms Archives on line:

At The Rooms Provincial Archives take some time to read  VA  40- 16:  A page from The Evening Telegram, St. John’s, NL. with several newspaper articles about the sinking of the SS Caribou, including names of those lost ; death of assistant matron, Agnes Wilkie, General Hospital.

Recommended Reading: Thornhill, H. It Happened in October : The Tragic Sinking of the S.S. Caribou. Newfoundland: H. Thornhill, 1945.

Recommended Song:  The Caribou; Lyrics can be found at:

Are you in my pew?


October 8, 1991

Basilica Cathedral Parish receipt for pew rent. Pew #28.

In the 1800’s because voluntary offerings in Sunday collections were unpredictable, pastors introduced pew rents to stabilize parish finances.  Originating in Germany, the pew rent system was common place in North America by the 1840’s. In the new churches it was used to secure a steady income from which the debt on new buildings could be paid.

Parishioners could literally “rent a pew”.  It was reserved for their use during one or all of the Sunday Masses and other devotions and events.  Typically in most churches a  brass plate  was inserted with  a card holder where the name of the family “renting” the pew  was inserted.

The pews were also in demand.  Every Sunday notices were read reminding parishioners if they had not paid their “pew rent” that they should pay immediately or forfeit the right to claim the pew!

The practice was so prevalent that for certain celebrations in St. John’s that the Archbishop of St. John’s had to make a special plea that the “pew holders”  in the Basilica Cathedral give up their pews for special occasions. For example when Pope Pius XI died in 1939, Archbishop Roche requested:

“Pew holders in the upper centre section are requested to give their pews on that day (February 19, 1939)  for the use of those who desire to attend the ceremony ….

The same notice would go to pew holders when the  Basilica Cathdral hosted sacred  concerts.  One such notice read:

“On Wednesday Evening next at 8:00 o’clock a Sacred Oratorio will be held in the Cathedral on the occasion of the opening of the new organ. A small charge will be made for admission – the proceeds to go towards the expenses of the Organ which will be over eight thousand dollars. Pew holders will please understand that they must not expect to claim their pews on that occasion as they will be occupied by ticket holders.”

In some diocese the practise was so prevalent that regulations ensured that a proportion of pews (at least one sixth) always remained free to insure that the poor would have a seat in the church. The seats of renters who had not arrived before a certain point in the celebration were also regarded as free for occupation by others.

The idea  of “pew rents”  was  for some a great source of scandal, it was inevitable that it was the poor  that were edged out to perch on benches and stools at the back or middle of the church.

To an outsider the effect of rented pews in church could be off-putting.  A vistor to a church in Monmouthshire, Wales wrote in 1882:

“I did go once  (to the church) but the people were all shut in, and the folk in the pews  looked at me as if I had got in without paying: so after walking up and down several times, like a man in a station trying to get a seat when the train is full, I went home.”

In most churches in Newfoundland the idea of “pew rents” was allowed to fade away quietly. In place of pew rents for a particular pew, in some churches, a general pew  collection or second collection was held every Sunday. In the Basilica Cathedral Parish this general offering was seen by some parishioners as a way to hold on to the pew that they saw as “their family pew.”  To this very day older parishioners continue to sit in what was “their family pew.”

The pew collection, previously the pew rent, was officially ended by a decision of the Basilica Cathedral Parish Council on October 8, 1991.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Archives of the R.C. Archdiocese see “The Pew Rent Receipt Books” these books  identify the particular pew that was assigned to a family.

Recommended Reading:The English Anglian practice of pew renting, 1800-1969. Bennett, John Charles (2011) Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham, England.