T.W. Paterson: ‘Terrible Sensation! Murdered at Whitfield Brothers…’

One Monday morning, Shears went to fill up his powder can as usual and, to his horror, found a fuse leading from one of the kegs.

One Monday morning, Shears went to fill up his powder can as usual and, to his horror, found a fuse leading from one of the kegs.

It’s getting so that you don’t dare walk down a dark street alone any more. Not if you believe all you read and hear about crime and violence. It’s nothing like the old days, when everyone knew and trusted each other, when no one bothered to lock their doors.

Take pioneer Nanaimo, for instance. It was once so peaceful that, to give but a single example, two weeks in August 1890, there were only two shootings, two suicides, a single attempt to blow up a house, one throat-cutting, a safe-cracking, a shipboard robbery involving a gang of seven, and juvenile delinquency.

Oh, and armed militiamen patrolled Wellington streets to maintain the peace during one of our periodic miners’ strikes. The good old days!

This occupation by armed troops was a precursor to the Great Strike of 1912-14 and was a case of over-reaction by Victoria authorities who obviously learned nothing from the affair as they repeated the mistake two decades later. In every edition, the Free Press heaped scorn upon the government with sarcastic headlines such as: “All quiet on the Millstream!” and announced a mass meeting at which Wellington and Nanaimo citizens could express their indignation “at the sending of troops to this district. Let the attendance be large and general, so that those who are responsible for the insult may feel the full effect of public opinion…”

To give the government some due, there had been provocations. Such as an attempt to blow up J. Shears’s Milton Street house. A miner (one who, we would deduce, crossed the picket lines), Shears was in the habit of keeping his supply of blasting powder at his home — two kegs’ worth, no less — from which he daily topped up the powder can he carried to work. One Monday morning, he went to fill up as usual and, to his horror, found a fuse leading from one of the kegs.

It had burned out just two feet short of detonation. The unknown perpetrators hadn’t seen that the level of this can was down and that their fuse didn’t reach the powder; hence no explosion. Had “the miscreant…been successful,” it was reported, “there is no knowing what would have been the disastrous effect.” Const. O’Connell was investigating.

Coroner J.P. Planta had an investigation of his own, into the death by suicide of Frances Sarah Cawthorne.

Molly Sergeant testified that, on the morning of her friend’s death, Mrs. Cawthorne had entered the latter’s store, placed both hands on her shoulders, and said, “I have done it! I have done it!” Asked what she had done, she replied that she had taken rat poison. She apologized for upsetting her friend, and asked that she summon her husband before she died. Panic-stricken, Mrs. Sergeant ran outside in search of help but the first person she accosted turned out to be a Belgian woman who didn’t speak English.

By the time medical assistance arrived, Mrs. Cawthorne was in her death throes. Mrs. Sergeant was among those who remained by her side the whole time, doing what little could be done to comfort her, and repeatedly asking why she’d poisoned herself. Had she and her husband been having problems? No, they were “good friends,” she said, and he never abused her.

Only towards the very end, when she pleaded with them to let her die, did she answer that she had taken the poison because she was afraid that she was losing her mind.

As if martial law and a rash of real-life shootings, suicides and attempted explosions weren’t enough to set Nanaimo citizens’ nerves a-jangle, Whitfield Brothers chose a singular way to announce their clearance sale with these tabloid-style headlines: “Terrible sensation! MURDERED at Whitfield Brothers Boot & Shoe Store, high prices in boots and shoes. ROBBED of all old stock in boots and shoes. BURIED all regard for high prices. WANTED! Detectives to find 1,999 men, women and children to buy boots…at Whitfield Brothers.”

As for those assorted shootings, safe-cracking and shipboard robbery, full particulars will have to await another day.

www.twpaterson.com