Monday, December 10, 2012


Bloody Victoria: The Woman Who Did

On the Queen’s birthday celebration in May 1896, an overloaded trolley car collapsed a bridge, killing over fifty people in British Columbia’s capital. Victoria has a rich history beginning with the HBC, the Royal Navy, and a few gold rushes. Hundreds of heritage buildings have been preserved in this Inner Harbour mecca. At midnight, standing on a wood-bricked street under a glowing lamp post, you can travel back in time or even begin a historical mystery.

Maps are step one. Many streets have changed. In 1896 Victoria was razing its old “Birdcages” and building the storybook Parliament that awes tourists today. The iconic Empress Hotel locale was James Bay, a polluted wen with soap-factory effluvium rainbowing the water. Across the harbour was the Songhees Reserve, not million-dollar condos. Sealing ships still plied their shrinking trade. The Navy Pacific Fleet was making the transition from sail as the bluejackets came to town to raise hell.

Horse-drawn traffic kept to the left. Gaslight had arrived, but electricity was new. Retrofitted plumbing went boxed up the outside of older houses. There were callboxes for the police and a few hundred wealthier families on the switchboard. Fancy-lady parlours thrived, but poor girls still delivered ten-penny knee tremblers in the alleys.

The police department had moved to the renovated City Hall, but a new prison stood out on Tolmie. As for money, there were common fifty-cent pieces as well as twenty-five-cent shinplaster bills and a few American silver Morgan dollars or gold eagles. I got Tess of the D’Urbervilles right, but missed the fact that the Hound of the Baskervilles had not yet arrived in print. Cocktails included the Blue Blazer and soda fountains sold Tin Roof sundaes but not David Harums (post-1900). The Woman Who Did title came from Kingston’s Grant Allen’s bestseller of 1895. Just what she “did” might surprise you.

A reprint of an 1897 Sears catalogue served for clothes, medicine, furniture, timepieces, spectacles, and canned goods. St. Ann’s Academy had the nuns I needed but not the lovely grounds today nor the additions. The dingy, filthy morgue, tucked into a market downtown and deplored by the coroners, has been gone for a century. The Daily Colonist, formerly the British Colonist and today’s Times Colonist was on line. I read about the accident and its aftermath, the corpses laid like cordwood on Captain Grant’s lawn and the inquest that night as the jury traipsed from the morgue to an overcrowded funeral parlour. At the page bottom was a tiny ad for repairing watches soaked in sea water.

I consulted old phonebooks for businesses in Chinatown. Coloured firemaps recorded even opium factories, legal at the time. I can still walk Fan Tan Alley. But not at night.

Fig newtons had arrived, a great snack “When Strolling Through the Park One Day.” Motion pictures in NYC were in the conversation as were the first autos. Sobranie cigarettes and Burberry overcoats? And the Queen’s daughter, Empress of Germany, was called Vicky. The telegraph hummed, and steamers were passing sailing ships, but how much did it cost to go to Seattle? Bicycles aka “wheels” had just arrived, carrying postmen delivering mail. Slang was a puzzling mixture of British, Canadian, and American words. New York novellas by Stephen Crane and a period detective story in the Daily Colonist led me to “out of sight.” People were “chewing the fat,” “going steady,” putting on “glad rags,” and talking about “plutes” and “rats.” Crawling babies were “ankle biters.”

Writing the first book in a historical series is like giving birth to an elephant. Everything’s easy and familiar once Jumbo has arrived. Can’t wait to start the next one!

Lou Allin's latest book is Contingency Plan from Orca, a Rapid Reads novella. Coming in April is the third entry from Dundurn in her Canada's Caribbean series, Twilight is not Good for Maidens, featuring RCMP Corporal Holly Martin. A serial rapist stalks the beach parks of southern Vancouver Island.

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