The old house on Meares Street is long gone, but was the centre of attention in Victoria back in 1871. From all reports, the place had seen better days, though its pretty garden still attracted admiration from passersby. It probably wasn’t his first choice when John Sullivan Deas was looking for a place to rent, but there weren’t many others available at the time. The problem was that he had left it too late in the fall to start looking and all the best accommodation had been taken. The house was not in the best location either, being right across the street from the Old Burying Ground on Quadra Street (now known as Pioneer Square). There was also the unpleasant fact that Deas had been a good friend of the previous owner, who had recently died, not that Deas would admit that he was a superstitious man. Against his better judgment he paid the rent and in late October moved in with his family, just in time for Halloween. However, they didn’t stay there long enough to celebrate that spooky night. In fact, they moved out the day after they moved in.
Deas had arrived in Victoria from California in 1862, one of about six hundred black pioneers who came to Victoria during the gold-rush era after 1858. He was a tinsmith by trade and set up a shop in town. Eventually he ran a salmon cannery on the lower Fraser River and the place was given his name: Deas Island. One of his best friends was Richard Johnson, another black, who had been proprietor of the Mount Ararat Hotel in Leechtown and also Captain of the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, an all-black militia unit usually known as the “African Rifles.” It was Johnson’s house that Deas rented.
Probably Deas had not heard the house was haunted. If he had, perhaps he thought it was a hoax. However, a former prospective renter knew it was true. He had felt an eerie chill in the house and was aware of “an invisible something” that sent him fleeing. Neighbours frequently reported a stamping noise coming from the verandah of the empty house, as if a one-legged man were walking back and forth along its length.
The Deas’ servant girl was the first to see the ghost. She described it as a face staring through the window at her. When she hung up a blanket to hide it, the apparition continued to shine right though. Terrified, she ran from the room in a panic. From his bed, Mr. Deas also saw the phantom and realized it was his old friend, Richard Johnson. “The face bore a melancholy look,” he explained. Amazingly, however, the figure was surrounded by a glowing arch of fire that scintillated rapidly and threw off sparks. Though Mrs. Deas also saw the light, she did not notice the head. Over time the story grew until it was said that Johnson’s ghost had held a straight razor in its hand and moved it through the surrounding light, then went through the motions of using it to slit his own throat.
Johnson was buried in the Old Burying Ground, but whether a monument was ever erected over his grave is not recorded. All but a few of the tombstones were removed in 1908 and Johnson’s name is not on any that remain. Yet to this day, people at night report seeing a strange figure wielding a straight razor, surrounded by a glowing light, walking through a portion of the park, then stopping and re-enacting the gruesome spectacle of putting the blade to his throat and drawing it across. Urban legend suggests the ghost commits the foul deed on the very spot where Johnson lies beneath the sod.
Go to www.oldcem.bc.ca/cem_pn.htm to find out more about Pioneer Square and the people interred there.
John Adams is founder of “Ghostly Walks” which have showcased Victoria’s haunted history since 2000. These popular walking tours take place every night until October 31, but continue on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays all winter. At Halloween he also hosts “Ghost Bus-tours” for the Old Cemeteries Society. Check ghostlywalks.com or telephone 250.384.6698 for full details about all of his spooky tours.
Published in analogue magazine’s Oct/Nov 2015 issue