The pre-ghost life of a Fort Langley ghoul
William Henry Emptage is often said to be seen walking through the Fort Langley cemetery where he was buried more than 100 years ago.
*Warning: This story describes a graphic medical procedure.
During the summertime, William Henry Emptage can sometimes be seen walking in the Fort Langley cemetery. He’s there looking for his wife Lousia who was buried in the fort cemetery—like Emptage, more than 100 years ago.
Emptage’s ghost story is Aman Johal’s personal favourite. It’s also the story that inspired the interpreter at Fort Langley National Historic Site to help launch the popular Grave Tales 17 Halloweens ago.
The idea for a ghost walk was brought to Johal by a colleague. Once they got the nod from Parks Canada, they put a call out to the community for ghost stories.
“We crossed our fingers and hoped if we’re lucky, we’ll get maybe two or three dozen replies,” said Johal.
Instead, they received more than 2,000 stories.
“We came to a consensus that we would start sharing stories that had received at least three or more accounts of the same story from different sources.”
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The walk was an instant hit and has sold out every year, including this one.
“We call it Grave Tales because at least half the stories that we do share are true, actual fact,” Johal said. “We visit the graves of the people we speak of, and then the other half is the Halloween style, like things that go bump in the night.”
The story of William Henry Emptage is one of those based on true events. Johal began researching Emptage after coming across his photo in the fort’s database. Johal dug up Langley Township land records, traced Emptage’s lineage back to England, spoke to his descendants amongst the Kwantlen and other Stó:lō First Nations, and learned details from his former employer: Hudson’s Bay Company, which Johal says “was really meticulous with record-keeping.”
Emptage’s story began in Kent, England, where he was born around 1830. He came from a long line of prolific sailors who worked for the East India Company. When Emptage finished school at the age of 15, he signed on with the company as well, against his father’s wishes.
Around the age of 21, Emptage got bored of that life and joined the Hudson’s Bay Company instead. He was sent to report for duty in Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island. He arrived in 1851 and was sent on a gold expedition. There he signed up for the job of igniter.
Crews would drill into rock, looking for a vein of quartz. When a vein was found the drilling stopped and the igniter was sent in. Emptage would crawl into the small hole, pack the bottom with clay and black powder, and attach a wick. He would light the wick and run for cover before the explosion.
“Sounds like a simple job; dangerous to say the least, and William is doing a great job for about two weeks, and then one day he’s not really paying much attention to the task,” Johal said. (One would think that is a task that demands close attention!)
“And when he strikes the lucifer, the matchstick breaks in half and the part that was lit and in flames is not the half that he was still holding. The lit piece falls and it makes the wick short.”
As the story goes, with only a split second to think, Emptage used his hand to block the black powder. An explosion happened, but no one saw Emptage run out of the hole.
“And by the time all the smoke has even come to a rest, the rest of the team is amazed because everyone saw William Henry Emptage standing there. Clearly in a state of shock, most of his clothes had been blown off his body. He’s covered in cuts, bruises and a lot of soot.
“But his plan worked. His hand took the brunt of the explosion. The explosion was so intense that the hand was actually blown off his arm. But it didn’t go anywhere. Because the skin on the back of his hand was still attached to the stump of his arm.”
It took four days of travel, but Emptage, accompanied by two members of his crew, arrived in the middle of the night at a doctor’s home in Victoria.
The rest of the story, Johal says, comes directly from the doctor’s journal.
At the doctor’s doorstep, the men explain what happened while the doctor unbandaged Emptage’s hand. He quickly realized the infection had spread and his hand couldn’t be saved. The arm needed to be amputated.
“That’s when [the doctor] realizes that he’s at home,” Johal said. The doctor doesn’t have chloroform. Emptage would be awake during the amputation. “The doctor is forced to improvise.”
The men held Emptage down against the surface of the doctor’s dining table.
“The doctor gets William’s arm and hangs it over the edge of the table, gets out a sharp knife and starts to cut through the skin to expose bone all the way around the arm until he does see that bone,” Johal said. “When he does see the bone he brings out a saw—because that’s a medical device—and he proceeds to cut through the bone.
“We can only imagine the sights and the sounds, let alone the smell in that room,” Johal said.
The cut is clean and the infected part of the arm falls to the floor.
“And the next thing the doctor wrote in his journal was: ‘I had not done an amputation in quite some time. And in the haste of this procedure I realized I had made a mistake.’”
The doctor realized he didn’t leave enough extra skin to fold over on the open wound. So he had to do it again.
Emptage survived the procedure but a month had gone by and no one wanted to hire a man missing a hand. A Fort Langley trader heard of Emptage’s plight and proposed he come help operate his dairy farm.
Emptage left for Fort Langley and spent the rest of his career working as a manager at the dairy operation. He married Louisa, the daughter of a Musqueam chief, and they had a few sons together. Emptage would eventually purchase his own land and farm, where Trinity Western University stands today. After the couple died, their children inherited their property.
“William and Louisa are buried in the same cemetery, albeit quite a distance apart, and the location of their cemetery graves and the position of them leads to one of the more popular ghost stories of the fort.”
Emptage lived long enough to marry, own property, and have children. The dangerous explosion and amputation (twice) isn’t what made him a ghost.
That story is best heard from the fort storytellers while standing at his grave in Fort Langley.
For tickets to next year’s Grave Tales visit the Fort Langley National Historic Site calendar of events. Ticket sales usually begin in early September.
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