Canada’s colourful characters series: Madame Bendixen

I have long maintained that the most interesting history of any nation is not found in its celebrities, but in the antics of its most colourful characters. Madame Bendixen is not a name that comes readily to mind, but she was certainly colourful.

If you know of any similar characters, don’t hesitate to send me a clue. Leave a comment, or email me, at: gerrybbooks@yahoo.ca. I’d love to hear from you.

Cowichan Valley Citizen

Barkerville, British Columbia. Main Street during its heyday.
Barkerville, British Columbia. Main Street during its heyday.

M. Bendixen and his stout wife erected the modest two-storey brick hotel, on the present site of the Eaton’s Centre, upon their arrival in the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island in 1862. For a while the St. George was Victoria’s finest, its “accommodating” host and hostess enjoying a profitable business.

That is, when the madame wasn’t “in one of her queer moods”.

For Mrs. Bendixen, it would appear, was as fiery and loud as she was stout, and not many ventured within range when she was on the warpath. When the town experienced hard times, the landlady’s notorious disposition became even worse, driving what few clients remained to seek other accommodations.

They’d have scarcely believed that, just eight years before, she’d been “one of the handsomest and daintiest of the smart set of San Francisco”. Many times, hundreds of admiring eyes had followed the beautiful woman in the shining carriage drawn by a magnificent team of horses along Montgomery Street. The mistress of a leading Bay City underworld figure, she enjoyed a life of royalty, with the finest of jewels, furs and silks.

Then, unaccountably, she changed almost overnight. Instead of the haughty paramour she became a tower of virtue, even announcing her forthcoming marriage. Retiring to a cottage, she attended church and shunned all association with her former cronies.

Her rejected lover reacted with gifts and kind words then threats. The police, riddled by corruption, turned a deaf ear to her pleas for protection. She refused to yield even when nitric acid was splashed across her gown. After two thugs beat her fiancé unmercifully and she miraculously survived the bombing of her cottage, she had endure “the most scandalous stories” that were spread about her.

Rather than break her spirit, wrote pioneer Victoria journalist D.W. Higgins, who’d known her slightly while in living in California, the terror campaign “only increased her religious fervour and tended to confirm her in a desire to reform”. When next he’d seen her, in Victoria, instead of the “shrinking, timid, handsome girl of several years before, she had developed into a fat, bold and quarrelsome, middle-aged woman”. So dramatic was the change in Madame Bendixen’s appearance that Higgins hadn’t recognized her at first.

For four years, Louis and Fanny Bendixen, who’d invested their savings in the St. George, struggled to keep it afloat. But Victoria was in a recession; businesses foundered and thistles grew in the dusty intersections of Yates and Government streets, the city’s busiest thoroughfares.

Finally, they sold, no doubt, at a loss. By this time, not even Louis could stand his wife’s shrewish tongue and he left for California, she moving to the Cariboo to open a modest saloon in Barkerville. Years later, word reached Victoria of her death at the age of 70.

She’d admitted to being 44.

Which brings us to a 1996 column in the Times-Colonist in which the late writer/historian Charles Lillard pondered Madame Bendixen’s real story. He’d read Higgins, of course, but what intrigued him most were fleeting references to Mrs. B in W.B. Cheadle’s classic Journal of a Trip Across Canada. Written 20 years after he and Viscount Milton made most history as being among B.C.’s first tourist explorers, Cheadle described their stay in Victoria in 1864, the leading citizens they met socially while staying at the St. George where, in stark contrast to her previously described notoriety and foul temper, they were “rapturously welcomed” by their hostess. At a dinner at the Thomas Harris home, Mrs. Bendixen “inveighed against the degradation of dining with le gros boucher,” their host and the city’s first mayor having made his fortune as a butcher.

In his book, Cheadle describes other dinners, others of the city’s and colony’s leading citizens, among them Gov. and Mrs. James Douglas and (so-called) Hanging Judge Matthew Begbie. Lillard found the references to the mysterious Mrs. B to be the most intriguing and glumly conceded, “I still don’t know the [real] identity of Mrs. Bendixen.”

In Barkerville, Richard Thomas Wright devotes two pages to “the enigmatic” Fanny ‘Bendixon’ who arrived in Barkerville aged about 25, to become owner, over the years, of several saloons (among them, shades of Victoria, the St. George) and, quite likely, a brothel keeper. By then she was thought to weigh in excess of 300 pounds, so large that she straddled two chairs while dispensing drinks to patrons, and prompting Judge Begbie to refer to her in a letter as being of “undiscoverable girth although she was always of goodly diameter”.

By then she was known, particularly to children, for her genial disposition although her fiery temper lurked, as always, just beneath the surface and required little to spark an eruption of profanity. Her death, in January 1899, prompted a civil suit over disposition of her valuable earrings.

We’ll leave the last word on this mystery woman to Richard Wright: “Even in death Fanny Bendixon was a woman who captured the imagination of many and likely the hearts of many a miner and businessman along the creeks.”

– Source:  http://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/living/history-blank-who-was-madame-bendixen-1.867484#sthash.x4vPl0Wc.dpuf

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Pioneer education in Canada, Part II

Taught to the tune of the hickory stick…

sod school - Winona School (1908)  forty miles west of Saskatoon
sod school – Winona School (1908)
forty miles west of Saskatoon

It was difficult to find teachers for all the one-room schools that were built on the prairies. In order to qualify for a teaching certificate, a person had to go to school to be trained. The amount of time spent training varied. Some went to school for a couple of months. There were teachers (including my sister) who were sixteen years old, as old as some of their students.

One teacher taught many grades in a rural one-room school. The main subjects were the three R’s : reading, writing and arithmetic. Older students helped with the younger students. Text books and supplies were lacking. Some students could not speak English.

One-room schools were cold and drafty in the winter. A teacher in the early days was expected to do many things besides teaching. The school was to be kept clean. There were extra duties for the teacher such as: filling the oil lamps; cleaning the chimney; bringing in water for drinking and for washing hands; bringing in firewood; keeping the classroom warm; sharpening the pens.

All this for between $26 and $35 per month.

J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910
J.L. MacDonald, teacher, and students, School District #3, Glenelg, Ontario, 1910

Rules for teachers 1872

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, trim wicks and clean chimneys

2. Each morning teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session

3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.

From the 1920s to the early 1960s, children who lived in remote parts of northern Ontario went to a very special school. Their school came to them once a month or so and stayed a week at a time. School was part of a railway car pulled by a train. Half the car was the teacher's home, the other half was a classroom. It had desks of different sizes for students of various ages, blackboards, maps, textbooks and books to read. Most of the schoolchildren's fathers worked for the railway, others were trappers, miners and farmers.
From the 1920s to the early 1960s, children who lived in remote parts of northern Ontario went to a very special school. Their school came to them once a month or so and stayed a week at a time. School was part of a railway car pulled by a train. Half the car was the teacher’s home, the other half was a classroom. It had desks of different sizes for students of various ages, blackboards, maps, textbooks and books to read. Most of the schoolchildren’s fathers worked for the railway, others were trappers, miners and farmers.

4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they attend church regularly

5. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the bible or any other good books.

6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity and honesty.

9. The teacher who performs his labour faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five pence per week in his pay, providing the board of education approves.

In the early years men dominated the teaching profession, retired soldiers, etc.. According to beliefs of the day, a woman’s place was in the home, and besides, there was no way a woman could be expected to maintain discipline in a classroom full of unruly students. However, by mid-century, rising immigration, ballooning birth rates, and rapid territorial expansion had caused a crisis in education. There were simply not enough good teachers to go around.

A single teacher taught five to eight grade levels, all subjects. In many cases, the teacher would arrive very early to start a fire in the pot belly stove, and prepare a hot meal for the students, and clean the classroom. All this was in addition to their usual duties of preparing lessons and grading papers. While one-room schools were responsible for graduating many successful Americans, such as astronaut Alan Shepard, the teachers themselves rarely earned any significant recognition or income (“One-Room School”). Average wages for teachers was between $26 and $31 dollars per month.

School Days

pioneer education - boy coca-colaSchool days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate
“I love you, so”
When we were a couple of kids

Nothing to do, Nellie Darling
Nothing to do you say
Let’s take a trip on memory’s ship
Back to the bygone days
Sail to the old village school house
Anchor outside the school door
Look in and see
There’s you and there’s me
A couple of kids once more

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate
“I love you, so”
When we were a couple of kids

‘Member the hill
Nellie Darling
And the oak tree
That grew on its brow
They’ve built forty storeys
Upon that old hill
And the oak’s an old chestnut now
‘Member the meadows
So green, dear
So fragrant with clover and maize
Into new city lots
And preferred business plots
They’ve cut them up
Since those days

School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days.
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate
“I love you, so”
When we were a couple of kids

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Nellie Cashman

“The Angel of The Cassiar.”

nellie cashman - portraitEllen Cashman (1845 – January 4, 1925), better known as “Nellie,” was Born at Belvelly, near Cobh, County Cork in 1845, Cashman came to the United States around 1850 with her mother and her sister, settling in Boston. As an adolescent, Cashman worked as a bellhop in a Boston hotel. She and her family emigrated to San Francisco, California in 1865.

Following the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush, Cashman left her family home in 1874 for the Cassiar Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. A lifelong Catholic, she set up a boarding house for miners, asking for donations to the Sisters of St. Anne in return for the services available at her boarding house.

Cashman was traveling to Victoria to deliver 500 dollars to the Sisters of St. Anne when she heard that a snowstorm had descended on the Cassiar Mountains, stranding and injuring 26 miners, who were also suffering from scurvy. She immediately took charge of a six-man search party and collected food and medicine to bring to the stranded miners.

Conditions in the Cassiar Mountains were so dangerous that even the Canadian Army advised against the rescue. Upon learning of Cashman’s expedition, a commander sent his troops to locate Cashman’s party and bring them to safety.

An army trooper eventually found Cashman camped on the frozen surface of the Stikine River. Over tea, she convinced the trooper and his men that it was her will to continue, and that she would not head back without rescuing the miners.

After 77 days of unfriendly weather, Cashman and her party located the sick men, who numbered far more than 26; some estimates credit Cashman with saving the lives of as many as 75 men. She administered a Vitamin C diet to re-establish the group’s health. Thereafter, she was fondly known in the region as the “Angel of the Cassiar.”

nellie cashman's house copyLater in life, Cashman moved to Tombstone, Arizona. She raised money to build the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and committed herself to charity work with the Sisters of St. Joseph. She continued to work as a caretaker, taking a position as a nurse in a Cochise County hospital.

In 1898, Cashman left Arizona for the Yukon in search of gold, staying until 1905. Her prospecting ventures took her to Klondike, Fairbanks, and Nolan Creek. She later owned a store in Dawson City.

In 1921, Cashman visited California, where she declared her desire to be appointed U.S. deputy Marshal for the area of Koyukuk. In 1922, the Associated Press documented her trip from Nolan Creek to Anchorage.

In January 1925, Cashman developed pneumonia and rheumatism. Friends admitted her to the Sisters of St. Anne, the same hospital that she had helped build 51 years before. She soon died of her illness and was interred at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, British Columbia.

On March 15, 2006, Nellie Cashman was inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.

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Martha Purdy-Black

“First lady of the Yukon”

martha purdy black2In 1898, Martha Purdy lived a comfortable life as a Chicago socialite with two small sons. Then gold-fever struck and her life changed forever.  Leaving her children with relatives, Purdy, her husband and her brother George joined the stampede of would-be prospectors to the Yukon. The Klondike Gold Rush was underway. “To me it was a quest that had all the allure of a ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Aladdin’s Lamp,’ she wrote in her memoir. “I had only to go to the world-famed goldfields … and collect the gold. I pictured myself and my children living in luxury the rest of my days.” Marthas husband traveled with her to San Fransisco and went no further. Shortly afterwards, Martha discovered she was pregnant. Purdy and her brother continued up the West Coast by boat to the Alaska panhandle, then trekked to the treacherous Chilkoot Pass, at the border between Alaska and the Yukon.

martha purdy black“As I looked directly before me at the fearful mountain pass … I thought of my New England forebears, women who had bravely faced the hardships of pioneering, … Once again I knew that my path lay ahead, that there was no turning back now.”

Purdy was four months pregnant when she arrived in Dawson City in the Yukon – a booming outpost near the gold fields.  Filled with prospectors, the city overflowed with dance halls, theatres and saloons. Men outnumbered women 25 to one and it was said that “even an angel couldnt keep good in Dawson.” Purdy found a cabin overlooking the city.

“While I did not enter into the gaiety, I did have what sporting editors would call a ringside seat. We did not know when we squatted … that we had established ourselves above the red light district.”

While entertainment was everywhere, gold was not. By the time most prospectors arrived in the Klondike, the rich goldfields had already been staked out. By the summer of 1899, prospectors had panned most of the gold out of the territory. martha Pudy Black - MPDawson half emptied when rumours spread that gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska. But Purdy remained..

“I could not shake the lure of the Klondyke. My thoughts were continually of that vast new rugged country … Its stark and splendid mountains, its lordly Yukon River … its midnight sun.”

Purdy gave birth to a son Lyman, brought her other children north, and married a lawyer named George Black. Martha Black became know as the “First Lady of the Yukon” and was the second woman elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1935 at age 70.

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My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date). You can add your favourites, too. Just send me a note with your choice, title and author, to gerrybbooks@yahoo.ca

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If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.

      

Overlanders of 1862

Guts, grit and determination.

overlanders - cariboo goldGold was discovered in the late 1850s in the Cariboo Region of British Columbia’s southern interior, stretching from Cache Creek in the south to Quesnel in the north. When the first discovery was announced, people flocked to the area to stake their claims.

Before the torrent of excited miners arrived, British Columbia’s total population was 7,000 people. By July of 1859, approximately 33,000 miners had arrived in the area, eager to take home their portion of the profits.

Searching for a better life, a large group of Canadians left their Ontario homes to strike it rich in British Columbia’s gold fields. This group of 150* men, one woman (Mrs. August Schubert**) and her three children travelled for months across Canada until they reached Fort Edmonton (now Edmonton, Alberta) in 1862. Here, they restocked their supplies and prepared for the arduous journey across the Rocky Mountains.

overlanders - red river cartThe Overlanders travelled as far as they could with carts, oxen and horses carrying their supplies, but by Lac St. Anne, they had to abandon the last of their carts and continue onward carrying their supplies in heavy packs. The large group was soon spread thinly across 300 kilometres (186 miles) of the western prairies.

After the lead group of Overlanders crossed Yellowhead Pass, they camped at Cow Dung Lake, now known as Yellowhead Lake. This group was fighting starvation and while a few hunters in the group brought back squirrels and small birds, the group had to sacrifice some oxen and horses for the meat. Forging on with supplies of meat dried from their pack animals, this first group of Overlanders reached the Shuswap salmon-fishing camp at Tête Jaune Cache on August 27th. Here they traded much of their remaining ammunition, clothing, needles and thread, for much needed sustenance: salmon, huckleberries, saskatoons (berries) and pemmican.

On September 7, a second party of Overlanders passed Yellowhead Lake. Pausing there as well to replenish their supplies, they became trapped on an island by rapidly rising floodwaters. When the final group of Overlanders reached them, a few days later, the stranded party was nearing starvation. With the help of the new arrivals, everyone managed to get off the island and continue their trek. The final group of travellers reached Tête Jaune Cache on September 16.

Trials and Tribulations

overlanders - crossing swampFrom Tête Jaune Cache, the group divided again, choosing to take different routes to the lucrative Cariboo gold fields. The larger group decided to take the Fraser River to Fort George and then head south to Quesnel. They made canoes for their trip from hollowed-out cottonwood logs and ox hides and travelled down the first stretch of the Fraser quite easily. When they reached the Grand Canyon of the Fraser, a short gorge about 30 kilometres (18 miles) upstream from the confluence of the Bowron River, disaster struck. Caught in the tumultuous Scow Rapids, canoes were overturned and torn apart. Four men died from drowning or hypothermia and many supplies were lost. Worn down and badly beaten by the day’s events, the group pressed on, reaching Fort George on October 8.

overlanders - rapids on fraserA smaller group of Overlanders left Tête Jaune Cache and travelled overland up the McLennan River, which flows north into the Fraser River. Thinking they could make the trek to the gold fields by land, they purchased over 100 head of cattle and horses. Soon, the travellers discovered they would be forced to take the Thompson downriver to reach their destination. In preparation, they slaughtered their cattle and turned their horses loose. They constructed rafts and began their journey down the Thompson River to Fort Kamloops. This second group ran into trouble in the Murchison rapids and Hells Gate where two men died. The rest of the group arrived in Fort Kamloops in October of 1862.

While both groups suffered great losses, the majority of the travellers survived the epic journey and went on to take part in the Cariboo Gold Rush. The hardships they experienced and the perils they encountered, especially between Jasper and Tête Jaune Cache and in the canyons and rapids of the Fraser and North Thompson rivers, make their journey one of the most impressive events in Canadian travel history.

*This number varies from 150 – 200+.

**Mrs. Schubert gave birth to her fourth child the day after their arrival at Fort Kamloops.

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My list of of interesting books about Canada (to date). You can add your favourites, too. Just send me a note with your choice, title and author, to gerrybbooks@yahoo.ca

♣♣♣

If you would like to learn more about any of my books, or to order copies, click on the specific cover below. Two Irish Lads and Nor All Thy Tears are available in both Kindle and Nook formats. Publisher’s price, $4.95.

      

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