Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Ghost dog keeps watch in Wilmington, faithful to the end

Some say Boss can be heard whining along the waterfront, especially when anyone is careless with fire.
Some say Boss can be heard whining along the waterfront, especially when anyone is careless with fire. jshaffer@newsobserver.com

Of all the doomed spirits haunting North Carolina, few inspire heartsick tears more than Boss the tugboat captain’s dog – devoted canine, dockside hero, fearless pooch who died for love.

She trotted at the heels of Capt. William Ellerbrock, tagging along for pints of ale or jaunts on the Cape Fear River, lending comfort to the rough-handed skipper. They made boon companions, ashore and afloat – a pair whose friendship endures in Wilmington folklore.

Then one night in 1880, she darted into a burning building after her beloved master, perishing beside him in the flames, a torn piece of his coat in her charred muzzle. To this day, her whine can be heard along the waterfront, especially, it’s said, to those being careless with fire.

So sacred is Boss’ memory to the Port City, so hallowed her bravery, that her image appears chiseled on Capt. Ellerbrock’s grave, the only North Carolina dog so honored, as far as I know.

To this day, when guides lead tourists on the ghost walk down Front Street, they weep through the telling of Boss’ story, stricken more than a century later.

“It doesn’t have a lot of ghostly occurrences,” said John Hirchak, lead guide and author of “Ghosts of Old Wilmington,” “but it’s just such a tragic and moving story that it’s hard to resist. I’m bawling my eyes out every time I work on it.”

Young William Ellerbrock fled Germany in upheaval and landed in the 19th-century South, a culture where he never exactly fit. Knowing no one, fumbling with the language, he sought shelter with an uncle who taught him the tugboat trade.

He missed the old country and his friends, assimilating poorly, until one day his uncle gave him a present: the dog he named Boss.

Stories differ on Boss’ breed, a Newfoundland or a plain mutt. But history agrees that the two never parted, especially that April night when the alarm bells rang out over the waterfront. One account states that Ellerbrock handed Boss over to a bystander before he rushed in to help the victims, and that his dog broke free and chased after him. But Hirchak suspects that Boss wouldn’t have parted from Ellerbrock even for a second.

However it happened, the pair weren’t discovered until the next morning, the captain face down in the ashes and pinned under a collapsed wall. When crews lifted them from the wreckage, a woman in the crowd called out, “There’s something in the dog’s mouth!”

When they inspected, they found the pup’s teeth still clenched around her master’s sleeve, torn off as she tried to drag him to safety.

“This was big news when it happened,” Hirchak said. “It’s like the little girl falling down the well. Everybody felt like they had something invested in it.”

Capt. Ellerbrock and Boss rest in a corner of Oakdale Cemetery, a green and wooded graveyard hung with Spanish moss. They’re not far from 367 unknown Confederate soldiers and hundreds more victims of yellow fever. Newscaster David Brinkley’s grave is within shouting range.

By all accounts they do not appear in the burial ground, choosing instead to bob peacefully on some celestial riverboat. But Hirchak tells this story:

Long after their death, the fire largely forgotten, a merchant running a new business near the spot had an electrician do some work in an old upstairs corner. While he was poking around, he and his crewmen heard a dog whining nearby, and after searching around, they couldn’t find the animal anywhere.

But once he’d taken a good look, the electrician came back downstairs and advised against the work. Too risky, he said. A fire hazard.

He’d never heard the story of Boss the valiant, Boss who charged into an inferno. But he must have heard a phantom canine growling across the decades, a warning from trusty, long-eared protector.

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