Mother Coo

In the 1800s, a fortune teller reportedly predicted several of Nova Scotia’s deadliest coal mine disasters. Mother Coo, as she was called, was so uncannily accurate that a special inspection was done of the Springhill No. 1 mine after she predicted an explosion there, but it did not prevent a tragedy.

Mother Coo was originally from New Brunswick where she was known as the Witch of the Miramichi. According to Aubrey Dorrington’s “History of Stellarton,” she moved to New Glasgow and settled on MacDonald Street where she told fortunes for a living, with cards and teacup readings.

According to Bill Jessome’s “Maritime Mysteries: And the Ghosts who Surround Us,” a group of local miners’ wives went out for an afternoon of fun and decided to visit the fortune teller. Mother Coo looked at the cards, read tea leaves and became frightened and distraught at what she saw. She told the women there would soon be an explosion in the Drummond mine in nearby Westville.

On May 13, 1873, the Drummond mine exploded, killing about 70 miners (

In 1880, Mother Coo predicted there would be a disaster at the Foord Pit in Stellarton. In fact, there were several serious incidents that year and it is not clear from different accounts which one she is said to have predicted.

Inaccurate surveying was probably to blame for Foord Pit miners twice breaking into older, water-filled, neighbouring mine workings that fall. The floods that ensued killed nine horses on September 15 and six men on October 12.

Dorrington’s book says Mother Coo predicted there would be a loss of life by water in the Foord Pit on October 12.

On November 12, 1880, the Foord Pit exploded, killing 44 men in the east side of the mine. Miners from the west side managed to escape through the interconnected Cage pit. Subsequently there were two more explosions, which spread to the Cage, and both mines had to be flooded and closed.

Jessome’s book says Mother Coo predicted the November 12 explosion.

Another account says Mother Coo predicted an explosion in the Foord Pit in 1862…but the Foord Pit did not open until 1866.

Following the Foord Pit disaster, a local priest denounced Mother Coo as a witch, a serious accusation in an era when witchcraft could be blamed for things like illnesses and harm to livestock. She became feared in the community and parents warned their kids to stay away from her.

Her third prediction of a mine disaster was that there would be an explosion in Springhill’s No. 1 mine in 1891. Accounts differ about the predicted timing, some suggesting Mother Coo said the explosion would occur prior to Easter, which was March 29 that year, and others suggesting it would be in May.

The prediction caused fear among the miners and residents of Springhill. Miners in past centuries were often very superstitious and sometimes blamed accidents and noises on underground demons and spirits. That is perhaps not surprising given how dangerous their work was and how dark and mysterious underground mines were.

Mother Coo’s prediction led to a remarkable decision to do a special inspection of the Springhill No. 1 mine to ensure it was operating safely and to put miners’ minds at ease.

On February 19, 1891, inspectors appointed by the Pioneer Lodge, a miners’ union that formed in Springhill in 1879, inspected the No. 1 mine. They found everything to be in good working order. A government inspector did his regular monthly inspection the following day, February 20, and found everything was as it should be.

Mine manager Henry Swift wrote to his boss that day, saying, “All in order So far as I Know.”

The deadliest mining disaster in Nova Scotia’s history took place the following day, February 21, 1891. (See tomorrow’s post for the full story of the 1891 Springhill tragedy.)

While it is not clear whether Mother Coo had the timing of the disaster exactly right, this was nonetheless seen as her third accurate prediction of a coal mine disaster.

Despite her being branded a witch, Dorrington describes Mother Coo as a woman “without fear and very kind-hearted. If there was a person sick of a contagious disease and no one could be found to nurse them, she would go and stay until all danger was over, yet she did not do it for money. Her fame as a fortune teller was widespread throughout the community.”

Historical mining disasters like these are a key reason why the modern mining industry is so safety-focussed. Nova Scotia’s industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray inquiry report was released in 1997. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.

Aubrey Dorrington was a coal miner at the Allan Mine (now the site of Sobeys’ headquarters in Stellarton: The Dorrington Softball Complex, on the site of the former Bye Pits, is named for him (