Perhaps she was a raving lunatic, or perhaps she had actually spoken with him many years following his death in Niagara’s rapids. We will never know for sure, unless by some chance we can figure out a way to send a couple of investigators from Niagara Falls Paranormal back in time to check it out. We do know a few things, though…that in May of 1893 a party of travelers stopped here at Niagara Falls on their way to the World’s Fair. They were with the Polytechnic Cooperative Excursion Co. of No. 309 Regent Street, London, England—a peculiar bunch led by Mr. Newton Smith. Their group included a somnambulist who kept the whole ship from sleeping and another woman, Miss Hall, who combined vegetarianism and spiritualism and stirred it all up with a “cranky disposition.” We also know that Miss Hall, or “Snowdrop,” as she was known in the spirit realm, claimed to have had an encounter with the ghost of Captain Matthew Webb, the champion swimmer who had broken all records by successfully swimming the English Channel in 1875 but lost his life to Niagara on July 24, 1883.
But then there was poor Miss Ettie Castle, of London, England! Unfortunately, she had the misfortune of sharing a room on board the steamship with the sleep walker and the vegetarian-spiritualist. It was anything but smooth sailing as she was repeatedly awakened throughout the night by the startling cries of Miss Hall who was convinced that she was being pursued by demons and by the other strange woman who “got in her work” and wandered around the cabin as if in a trance. It seemed inevitable that a visit to Niagara would incite more fantastic supernatural events. One of the most vibrant cities in the world for spiritualists, the falling water was believed to fascinate one and all. So it was no surprise that Miss Hall found herself in the midst of another realm while gazing upon the rapids and the whirlpool. She revealed afterward that it was here, in this place, that a fine gentleman came upon her and struck up a melancholy conversation. He was handsome, friendly… and his very presence commanded respect. An Englishwoman, she knew at once it was him. During Victorian times Captain Webb’s face was well known throughout the British empire. It was not uncommon for the traveler to pay a visit to his grave at Oakwood Cemetery. But here he stood before her, at the scene of his demise, just a shadow of a man…but still a man, nonetheless, and he lamented his sad state of affairs.
“Snowdrop…I regret that I took that last trip. It was a little too much for me that time and I should not have tried it.”
Miss Hall claimed that these were his exact words.
Though he was king of the world for a time after his miraculous conquering of the English Channel in twenty one hours and forty five minutes (back in 1875), his brazen idea of beating Niagara was never a good one. He received no encouragement from the locals who knew that only tragedy would come of this sort of sport. It didn’t matter to them that he was a superstar. He had no chance against Niagara. When the date of his planned swim arrived--Tuesday, July 24th, 1883-- it was said he was cheerful and perfectly confident of impending success. He left the Clifton House at about 4:00 and walked down a hill where he took a small scow and was rowed out into the river while an audience of onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle. He was never seen again after 4:33 that summer afternoon. All that was left was to wait for Niagara to spit out his body—which occurred in Lewiston on Saturday, July 28th. A telegram was sent to Boston at once to inform his wife of the sad occurrence. Coroner Elsheimer took the body under his care and finally it was sent on to Oakwood Cemetery to remain in the vault for many months until Mrs. Webb could decide the next course of action. A “very incomplete postmortem examination” was made and it was revealed that he had been killed by the intense pressure of the water. Ultimately, Mrs. Webb decided to leave him to us, to Niagara. The casket was trimmed with Masonic emblems and members of the local fraternity assisted with the burial in the midst of a severe winter storm and deep snow.
Did Mrs. Webb err upon leaving him here, lonesome, at Niagara-the final tragic scene of a great life? Perhaps the Captain doesn’t appreciate living in the shadow of his defeat for at night it is still possible to hear Niagara’s great heaving roar through the cars and people-noises. Maybe it’s time for us to make an effort to take notice-- like the raving vegetarian-spiritualist, Miss Hall-- when we hear those little whispers from the past. It could awaken something very interesting, like Captain Matthew Webb, himself.
from “A Shropshire Lad”
by John Betjeman
…when we saw the ghost of Captain Webb,
Webb in a water sheeting,
Come dripping along in a bathing dress
To the Saturday evening meeting.
Dripping along, dripping along,
To the Congregational Hall;
Dripping and still he rose over the sill
And faded away in a wall.