Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”



Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

It’s a delicious spring day and the Silcox National Historic Site bus is on the road. We’re heading to Brantford—the First Nation Reserve of Oshweken to be exact. Our destination is Chiefswood, the ancestral home of poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson.

As we approach the Site on the banks of the slow-moving Grand River, snippets of Pauline’s  best-known poem “The Songs my Paddle Sings,” are called up from the depths of my six-decade-long memory.

West wind, blow from your prairie nest,

Blow from the mountains, blow from the west

The sail is idle, the sailor too;

O wind of the west, we wait for you!

Now you remember her from your own school days, don’t you—this half First Nation princess; half proper Victoria lady. And your memories aren’t that favourable are they? Like me, you were forced to study her poetry in high school and we found it sickly sentimental and flowery.  Too bad the English teachers of the 1960’s didn’t tell us about the woman herself.

“Pauline Johnson was before her time,” I remark to my chauffeur. “She lived generations before social media, but still Pauline knew how to get attention.   She was mysterious; she was beautiful; she had talent; she had chutzpa; but more than all this, Pauline Johnson knew how to court the media,” I add.

My driver,who doubles as navigator, dog-handler and purser agrees whole-heartedly.

We’re both hoping to get more insights into her larger-than-life character before we leave Chiefswood for home.


Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother, Emily Howells had married Mohawk George Henry Martin Johnson.  Four children including Pauline were eventually born.

Now George Johnson was no ordinary mortal.  Descended from the great Hiawatha, he was known in diplomatic as circles as Teyonhehkon, (some sources name him Onwanonsyshon)  the esteemed Chief of the Mohawk Confederacy. As such, he was afforded the respect that few of First Nation blood achieved.

As the children of “royalty,” Pauline and her siblings were educated at home in the English tradition. Her diary entries detail her growing infatuation with the romantic poets– Keats, Byron and Shelley. She began to write poetry herself and in her teens, her verse was published in the literary journal Gems of Poetry.

Much to her parents’ chagrin, by her early 20’s, Pauline had begun giving recitations of her poems.  But no run-of-the-mill Victorian poetry readings were these. The first part of the evening’s entertainment would see the night’s attraction  reading poems in her persona as the finely-bred English lady, Pauline Johnson.

Audiences politely applauded but remained restrained. They were waiting anxiously for the main act!


After a quick wardrobe change–out of hooped skirt and demure long sleeves into buckskin, beads and feathers, the main event returned as Indian princess Tekahionwake. Her verse reflected her altered persona. Birch-bark canoes and brave warriors had replaced flowers and singing birds. Crowds cheered and begged for more.

Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake was soon in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She became a veritable celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. This included rubbing shoulders with the literary and artistic crowds of the day.

Two of these luminaries were artists Carl Ahrens and Homer Watson. The artistic trio had also been drawn together as spiritualists who met regularly at séances (usually at the Watson Kitchener-area home) hoping to  seek contact with those who had moved on to the afterlife.

One spiritual tall-tale tells of  Johnson and Ahrens on an evening canoe outing paddling down the Grand River.  Suddenly they are ambushed by a war canoe carrying a vengeful Iroquois hunting party. Only Tekahionwake’s skilled canoeing skills save them from losing their scalps to the vengeful foe.


Sadly Pauline Johnson’s life was to be a brief one. In 1913, she died of breast cancer in Vancouver where she had relocated in the early 1900’s. she was only 52. 

Time has not been a friend to Pauline Johnson, poet. The writer of 13 books of verse, she is now rarely studied in school. Her name is more associated with overwrought emotion and Victorian angst than outstanding verse. Critics have also dismissed her performance legacy, calling her  nothing more than a savvy “entertainer;” one whose fame was based more on “showmanship” than literary talent.

Still, some with broader perspectives, treat Pauline Johnson with  more respect. She’s lauded as the woman who opened the door for succeeding female Canadian writers and performers.

In 1992, Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River, the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in buckskin, feathers and beads.


The Kingston Penitentiary:Murderers,Serial Killers and Childen

li-kingston-pen-istock-6201954_riot.jpg.size.xxlarge.promor-KINGSTON-PENITENTIARY-CLOSE-large570Constructed in 1835 during Queen Victoria’s reign, and occupied continuously until 2013, the Kingston Penitentiary once held a dubious distinction.  K.P. as it was known in the corrections system remained among the oldest of North American prisons to house criminals in the age of computers, space exploration and smart phones.

On a fall visit to the lovely and historic “limestone” city of Kingston, on National Historic Site adventuring, Louis and I  had “The Pen” on the top of our “must see” list.

On arriving at the massive 8.4 hectare site, we were disappointed to learn that the doors to the Gothic fortress remain bolted shut. “You’d think Corrections Canada could make a bundle having public tours,” I suggest. He agrees.


Kingston, Ontario once reigned as Penitentiary King of Canada. At one time 9 jails, including the Kingston Women’s Prison, held society’s law breakers in the province of Ontario.  

One Joseph Bouchette was the first criminal sentenced in 1835  to serve a penitentiary term at Kingston. His crime “Grand Larceny.” His punishment 5 years. 

The youngest inmate to arrive at K.P. was 8-year-old Antoine Beauché, a pick-pocket. Even at that young age, the court described him as an “old offender” and an” experienced pick-pocket.” The lad’s sentence was 3 years.

Records show that within a week of arriving, Antoine received the lash. Over the next 9 months he was lashed on 47 other occasions for: “staring, laughing, whistling, giggling, making noise in his cell, having tobacco and idling.”

Bad Girls Too

The adjacent Kingston Women Prison opened in 1836, thanks to the labours of their male “neighbours.” Three women, sentenced on the same day, were its first residents. All from the Hamilton area,the women had been convicted for the crime of Grand Larceny (theft).

The youngest female inmate to occupy a cell was 9-year old Sarah Jane Pierce. She was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment for housebreaking and larceny. Among the items that the little girl was found guilty of stealing were: a quilt, a ladies hat, a towel, some beef, raisins, biscuits, tea and sugar. 

Larceny was by far the most common crime for which men, women and children were sentenced. It takes little insight to see poverty and empty bellies as the motive behind such crimes.

Too Tired to Cook up Trouble

Riots and escapes—successful or failed, go hand in hand with prisons. August 1954, saw an uprising at K.P. involving 900 inmates. Guards, reinforced with RCMP assistance got the situation under control within a few hours.

The inmate riot of April 1971 was more destructive. Two prisoners were killed during the 4-day rampage.  6 prison guards were held captive and much of the prison was heavily damaged.  

The 1971 riot is notable for its use of the media to publicize the prisoners’ grievances. Prison leaders used newspaper, radio and television to air their grievances.  A lack of recreational time and little meaningful work time were tops on their complaints . Too much time spent in cells was another “bone to pick.”

K.P.’s  “Walk of Fame”

Kingston Penitentiary has housed many of the most infamous of Canadian criminals. They include: James Donnelly of the murderous Black Donnelly gang who terrorized the London/Lucan area in the mid-19th century. Donnelly was awaiting hanging in Kingston but was spared the noose after his wife circulated a petition to spare his life.

The notorious bank robber, “Red” Ryan also called K.P. “home” in the 1920’s.  A personal story illustrates just how daring the flame-haired criminal was.


Several years ago my services as writer were requested to complete the biography of an elderly woman who was born and grew up in the Kingston area in the early 1920’s .

Then only a child, she was living with her family on an isolated farm outside of town. Suddenly they heard an unexpected pounding on the door. Fearful of who would be out on such a stormy night, the family held together as my client’s father answered the door.

On the step were two rough-looking men, one with flaming red hair. “They wanted food and shelter for the night,” my elderly friend recalled. “So my father told them they could sleep in the loft of the barn. And my mother gave them some bread and meat.”

By the morning the pair had gone. “It wasn’t till later that we realized that our visitors were the escaped bank robber Red Ryan and his accomplice,” she recalled. “It gave us the chills thinking about how it could have been much worse for us.’

Political prisoners such as Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party of the 1930’s also “broke bread” with hardened murderers and rapists.

Modern day criminals and social deviants Paul Bernardo, serial child killer Clifford Olsen, Michael Rafferty (convicted of the death of 8-yer-old Victoria Stafford), former Canadian Armed Forces Colonel Russell Williams, and “honor killers” Mohammad and Hamed Shafia also resided at K.P

Through a Hole and Over the Wall

The stuff of Hollywood movies, escape attempts often catch the public’s attention when they occur. Prison records show 26 escape attempts from the the date of opening in 1835. Only a handful, including Red Ryan succeeded. None remained at large for long.

In 1999, one escape had a different outcome than most. Prisoner Ty Conn, on the loose for more than two weeks had been traced to a Toronto hotel room. Seeking to tell his story, Conn had contacted the CBC.  As Toronto police were surrounding the hotel, Conn was on the phone to a CBC reporter. Suddenly the reporter heard a deafening roar. Conn had put the gun to his head and fatally shot himself as she listened.

Despite its archaic conditions and dubious reputation, the end of the road for the Kingston Penitentiary didn’t come until 2013.  Prison reform advocates called K.P. “a dumping ground for bad guards.”   


Although the doors to Kingston’s Penitentiary remain closed, across the road Canada’s  Penitentiary  Museum allows a glimpse of life behind bars. The Museum houses prison artifacts such as leg irons, shackles, straight jackets, as well as escape equipment–knotted bed sheets, knives, spoons and small trowels .

The Curator of the Museum is Denis St. Onge who has written a book on the prison, “One Day Gone.”It is for sale in the gift shop.The book is dedicated to the 34 Corrections officials included guards who lost their lives on duty. li-kingston-pen-istock-620li-kingston-pen-istock-620 



Algonquin Park: Who is that Body in Tom Thomson’s Grave?


My earliest memory of Algonquin Park involves a tent with no floor and a hemp rope.

In the late 1950’s my family set out to the Park on our first camping trip. “Inexperience” was written on all our foreheads.

Gear was minimal, borrowed and prehistoric. It included a small, square, floorless tent. When you’re borrowing, you take what’s offered.

My father Norm, an over-reactor at the best of times, had also brought along a long hemp rope.

After he and my mother struggled for some time with the tent’s deployment, Dad proceeded to lay the rope around its circumference. “What are you doing Daddy?” was this oldest daughter’s query.

“This rope is a snake deterrent,” he answered me. “Snakes don’t like moving their bellies over the fibres in the cord and they’ll turn back. So we’ll be safe.” 

I slept not a wink that night, anticipating the drama that would, no doubt, be taking place outside our sleeping quarters.

It was some years before I learned that my father’s idea was sound—if we’d been camping in Burma and our foe had been a viper instead of a fearful garter snake!


Algonquin Park, encompassing 7571 square kilometers of land and water was established in 1893. It was the first designated Provincial Park in Canada. A wilderness paradise, the park boasted five rivers and numerous lakes that added contrast to the densely-wooded landscape.

The Park had been founded to serve three purposes: as a forest reserve; as a fish and game preserve; and as health and pleasure resort. By the early 1900’s Algonquin Park had become a favoured getaway for affluent vacationers.

City folk flocked, by the thousands, to Algonquin. To bring them north, a rail line had been built from Toronto’s Union Station. A series of “spur lines” were laid within the Park itself.

Hotels and lodges close to the rail line began to sprout like dandelions. The wealthiest of Park fans built gracious cottages.

But tourists weren’t the only ones drawn to the raw beauty of Algonquin Park. Artists made the pilgrimage too. One of them was the man now considered one of Canada’s finest artists. His name is Tom Thomson.


Born in Grey County in 1877, Tom started his art career as a commercial artist in the U.S. He later returned to Canada, and joined Grip Ltd of Toronto, a large photo engraving firm.

Grip became the spawning ground for Canada’s  future artists. Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael, Fred Varley, and Franz Johnson worked alongside Tom Thomson.

The painters routinely set off on weekend sketching trips to Ontario’s “near north,” including Algonquin Park. Occasionally Tom would join them, but more often than not he went solo. Tom, quiet and brooding was a loner.  

He’d discovered Algonquin’s charms as early as 1912. Over his years scouting the best places to paint, Thomson had also developed a reputation as an expert canoeist, a skilled hunter and a knowledgeable guide.

Sketching seated on a log, or from the vantage point of his canoe, Tom created magic on his canvas. One of his earliest paintings, A Northern Lake” was purchased by the Government of Ontario, for $250. It was a considerable sum, given that Tom’s weekly salary at Grip was $35 a week!

It didn’t take long for Dr. James MacCallum, a wealthy patron of young Canadian artists to become aware of Tom Thomson. He guaranteed Tom’s expenses for a year. This would allow him to leave his “day job” at Grip to devote his efforts and time towards painting Ontario’s north.


Tom would routinely arrive in the Park before the spring ice-melt. His residence there was Mowat Lodge on the northern shore of Canoe Lake. With a reputation as a surly individual, especially when he was “in his cups,” Thomson frequently clashed with Mowat’s proprietor Shannon Fraser.

Enmity between the two men increased with the rumour that Thomson had had a brief affair with Fraser’s wife Annie. Money came into play too. Tom was anxious to recover the money he had lent Fraser to buy new canoes for the lodge.

As soon as the ice began its spring melt, Tom was anxious to get on the water. A comfortable lodge was no place to observe the changing seasons. Packing his grey canoe with a few supplies, including a fishing pole and gun, his paint box and brushes, Tom Thomson would disappear into the bush for weeks on end.

Occasionally painting friends would join him. A.Y Jackson was a frequent companion. But more often than not Tom would set out alone.

At Mowat Lodge, Tom had made the acquaintance of one Winnie Trainor.  She lived in nearby Huntsville but frequently vacationed at a cottage in the Park. Although Tom’s feelings for the young lady were never recorded, most Canoe Lake folk considered them a couple. Indeed, Winnie told friends and family that she and Tom were engaged.

When Winnie left Huntsville for an extended period of time, the rumour was that she was carrying Tom Thomson’s baby.


In early July, 1917, Tom set off by canoe on another painting excursion. Given his pattern, no one expected him to re-surface for some time.

On July 8, 1917, canoeists spotted a body floating in Canoe Lake. A length of fish line was wrapped around the man’s ankles. It was surely Tom Thomson. After examining the body, the coroner judged the artist’s  death as “accidental drowning.”  

The official  judged the bruising above the artist’s temple and the bleeding from one of the ears as consistent with Thomson falling and striking his head before he tumbled into the water.

The manner of Thomson’s death, given his savvy as an outdoorsman, shocked Park regulars. Talk ran to disbelief when the coroner’s findings were released. Something was surely “fishy” here—and not just the fine trout that had been found in Tom’s abandoned canoe.  

Within hours, Park regulars were talking murder. The most vocal of those was Winnie Trainor who had recently returned from her mysterious and extended “holiday” to find her friend/lover dead.


Burial initially took place in a small cemetery overlooking Canoe Lake. A stone cairn, financed by Thomson’s patron, J. MacCallum was  erected to honour him. The inscription on the cairn had been penned by artist J.E.H. MacDonald.






Later, at the request of Thomson’s family, his coffin was exhumed and his remains were taken to the family plot outside Leith, Ontario. Rumours and speculation now flew again. Some wags believed that the body now resting in the Thomson family plot was not Tom at all.

Covert “body switching” had taken place.  And who were the supposed body-nappers?  None other than Tom’s artistic friends! The tale now turns  fantastical.

After Tom’s Algonquin burial, his friends and colleagues had caught wind of the Thomson family’s plan to have Tom’s body returned to Leith. Those who knew Tom best–certainly not his family– believed their deceased friend would have disapproved of the change in his final resting place.

And so they spirited Tom’s corpse out of the coffin, burying  him in an unmarked grave  on the shores of  Canoe Lake.

With the complicity of a medical man (Dr. McCallum?) the body-snatchers replaced Tom’s body with an “imposter.” This was who was buried in the Thomson cemetery.

Edwardian squeamishness would, it was hoped, prevent family members from opening the casket to discover  the switch. And they were right. The casket purportedly containing Tom Thomson’s corpse has never been opened. 


Almost 100 years later, debate on Tom Thomson’s demise continues to fascinate.

Doubt has always centred on the fish line wrapped tightly around the artist’s ankles. “Death by accidental drowning”skeptics ask: “How could a man of Thomson’s superior outdoors knowledge and skills have tangled himself so badly that it caused him to lose his balance and fall overboard?”

Speculations of the real cause of death of Tom Thomson’s tragic death abound. One sees Shannon Fraser, the owner of Mowat Lodge with whom the painter had differences, as the Thomson Murderer.  

The scenario sees Fraser following Thomson at a distance as Tom paddled across Canoe Lake. Overtaking the artist, Fraser dealt him vicious blow to the head with his paddle.  If Tom was not already dead before he fell into the water, he quickly drowned.

Other speculations are no less fanciful.

  • Distraught about Winnie Trainor’s pregnancy, Tom chose to commit suicide over being trapped into a loveless marriage.
  • The “demon rum” was the cause. Drunk, Thomson got his feet hopelessly tangled in the line and fell out of the canoe.
  • Death by assailants unknown—perhaps relatives of Winnie Trainor They wee punishing the “shiftless” artist for making her pregnant. Worse still was Thomson’s abandonment of her.

Roy MacGregor in his excellent biography of Thomson called Northern Spirit offers his own theory.

 Thomson never really intended to marry Winnie. Thomson was manic-depressive. Thomson didn’t commit suicide. Thomson didn’t fall out of his canoe. Thomson probably wasn’t even in his canoe when he died. Thomson was responsible for Winnie’s pregnancy. Thomson and Fraser, perhaps in a dispute about money, sex or Winnie’s pregnancy, got into a fight. Fraser struck Thomson and then panicked, and he and his wife disposed of the body, using fishing line to weigh Thomson’s remains down before dumping it in the lake.


Soon after the second burial, rumours grew again.  Speculation was that the body, now resting in the Thomson family plot was not Tom at all.

Persistent tales of “body switching” had surfaced. And who were the supposed body-nappers?  None other than Tom’s artistic friends! 

Those of the “switched-body” mindset, believe that after Tom’s Algonquin burial, his artistic friends had become aware of the Thomson family’s demand to have Tom’s body returned to Leith. This did not set well with them. Nor would it have if Tom himself had had a say in the matter!

And so these nameless “protectors”  spirited Tom’s corpse out of the coffin, burying  him in an unmarked grave  on the shores of  Canoe Lake.

With the complicity of a medical man (Dr. McCallum?) they replaced Tom’s body with an “imposter.” This was who was buried in the Thomson cemetery.

Edwardian squeamishness would, it was hoped, have prevent family members from opening the casket to discover  the switch. And they were right. 


The public’s fascination with the mysterious death of one of Canada’s greatest painters has continued through the decades. A flurry of interest was resurrected in 1956 when four “snoops” decided to break the law and dig up Thomson’s original grave-site.

They discovered what they believed was Thomson’s coffin. The sleuths also found a skull, with a bullet hole through the forehead. Authorities were quick to reiterate that  the body of Tom Thomson lay buried in a family plot lo! these many years.  Still, theories and suspicions of a Tom Thomson cover-up continue to this day.

And people call Canadian culture “boring.” Not on your life.

James Livingston’s Testament to Opulence, or All the Finery that Money Could Buy

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Cast the clock back to 1988. At Waterloo-Oxford District Secondary School in Baden, Ontario, just west of Kitchener-Waterloo where I teach, two students come to me with a problem to solve.
They need to do a research report on a historic building in their town. With the one-time “Flax King of Canada,” James Livingston’s Victorian mansion, Castle Kilbride, just down the road from the school, they’ve selected it as their study.

“Do you think there’s any way we could see inside it, Mrs. Silcox?” the kids ask me. A carpe diem type of educator, I answer: “we’ll see.” Then I pick up the phone and call Mr. Hap Veitch, the Castle’s current resident.
“I’d be delighted to give the kids a tour,” says the congenial Hap. “You come along too,” he invites. “But count on being here a couple of hours at least, to go through all the rooms. Three generations of ‘collectors’ lived here, and there’s a lot to see.”

Little could I imagine, at the time, how our adventure that day would open a new world to me—a world of history, art, architecture and fine furnishings. It opened my eyes also, to a compelling “Horatio Alger” story of ambition and power.

In 1854, James Livingston, only 16, late of East Kilbride, Scotland and his brother John crossed the ocean to make their fortune in Canada. Finding their way to Wilmot Township, west of the bustling town of Berlin (Kitchener), the brothers set their sights on the flax plant to make their mark.

Flax was a versatile commodity—not only used for cloth fibres, but the oil from the seed of the plant was a component of paint products. The Livingston boys were soon renting land and sewing flax seeds.
Within a couple of years, the Livingston-owned Dominion Linseed Company was formed. Both the brothers were well on their way to financial success. Eventually, their company would become the largest of its kind in North America.

Ambitions Beyond Business
But James Livingston’s ambition went far beyond business. In 1877, work began on his new home, situated prominently on Snyder’s Road, the main street of little Baden. It would be named “Castle Kilbride” after Livingston’s ancestral Scottish place of birth.

But no ordinary house would Kilbride be, either in size or composition. James and his German-speaking wife Louisa would go on to produce 10 living children. Fifteen rooms would do just fine for a large family and the requisite servants.

Kilbride was designed in the elegant Italianate style, adorned with ornate bay windows, cornices, gracious porches and a sweeping verandah. And like a tantalizing cherry sitting atop a tasty cupcake, Kilbride boasted a towering belvedere or cupola, atop its roofline.

Legend says that Livingston enjoyed his belvedere for more than aesthetic purposes. He used the vantage point to watch over his flax fields, staying alert to any malingering flax harvesters.

Riches for the Interior
“Glorious” best describes Kilbride’s interior. Livingston was a literate man, a great reader, with art, architecture and fine furnishings books high on his reading list. And so only the finest of interior design and workmanship were incorporated into Kilbride’s inner rooms.

Enter a mysterious itinerant painter named Henry Scharstein, who painted much of the elaborate artwork on Kilbride’s walls and ceilings. A master of the trompe l’oeil or “fools the eye” three-dimensional art, Schasstein was given full rein to create.

And what treasures unfolded under Scharstein’s practiced brush! Kilbride’s ceilings and walls are resplendent with classical scenes—musicians, cherubs, warriors and gods—in glorious gold, reds, greens and blues.

The most skilled of woodcarvers also found work at James Livingston’s Kilbride. Using only the finest of woods, they painstakingly carved rosettes, swirls and other intricate motifs in door trim and window valances.James imported from Italy several fine Carrera marble fireplaces, intricately carved like the wood trim. They were functional as well as decorative and would provide draughty warmth during the long Canadian winters.

Fine Art Too
Livingston travelled widely, collecting fine furnishings and art for his stately mansion. He was an early patron of acclaimed Victorian artist Homer Watson and added several of Watson’s landscapes to his home. One, “The Old Mill and Stream” was “twin” to Watson’s “The Pioneer Mill” which had been purchased for Queen Victoria’s art collection.

Yet not all of Livingston-watchers were complimentary of his efforts. An article in the Berlin Gazetteer of the day called Kilbride a “testament to opulence.”

James Livingston’s reign in his Castle ended with his death, from pneumonia in 1920. Despite his accomplishments as a businessman, builder and politician (he served as a Cabinet Minister in Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government) James’ life had not been one without heartache.

Illness plays no favourites between ordinary mortals and the wealthy and powerful. Five of Livingston’s children predeceased him. Three daughters succumbed to the virulent Spanish Flu epidemic after the end of the First World War.

J.P. Takes Up Residence
James Livingston’s fortune and home was inherited by his eldest son, J.P. With money still flowing from the various Livingston industries, now spread across Canada and into the U.S., J.P. and his wife Laura pursued an extravagant lifestyle.

Parties were legend at the Baden home, with the “who’s who” of society in attendance. They often included whiskey king Joseph Seagram. Rumours had it that the interior shutters on the ground floor were installed to keep the local Constabulary’s prying eyes away. It was, after all, Prohibition times!

The 1929 Crash of the Stock Market and the resulting Great Depression did the Livingstone empire no flavours. Add to this, the development of synthetic fabrics and water-based paints to drastically cut the flax markets, and the Livingston fortune began to dwindle.

By the time J.P.’s only child, Laura Louise, and her husband Hap Veitch inherited Castle Kilbride in the early 50’s, the Livingston fortune was gone.

To make matters more financially perilous, Kilbride was a money-eating white elephant. Ever-present house repairs—leaking roof, peeling paint, or broken-down furnace stretched Hap and Laura Louise’s means to an extreme.

Years of Decline
And so began Kilbride’s years of decline. By 1988 when my students and I visited, Hap and Laura Louise, now in poor health, lived in only two downstairs rooms, at the back of the home. “We can’t afford to heat the whole house,” confided Hap.

The prized Scharstein paintings were flaking and peeling. The once-gleaming oak floors and carved wood trim had warped. The fine Persian carpets were threadbare.

It was time to sell. In June 1988, James Livingston’s showpiece ended up in the hands of developer. A massive four-day auction, one that brought serious antique collectors and art dealers from across North America, was held as Kilbride was stripped bare of its finery.

While the prices of most of the Livingston treasures were beyond my modest means, I was determined to acquire one memory from our pre-auction visit. A fine 1930’s era leather handbag came home with me on that memorable day.

After the deal to purchase the Castle fell through, Livingston’s testament to opulence remained empty for a number of years. Vagrants moved in and lit fires in the marble fireplaces to warm themselves. Vandals defaced the walls and a fire destroyed the home’s coach house.

Fearing for the Castle’s Survival
Wilmot residents feared for the Castle’s survival. In 1993, after five years of ruin, James Livingston’s mansion was purchased by the Township of Wilmot. It would be restored as a museum, with an addition on the back to house the Township’s civic offices.

In 1994, primarily on the strength of artist Henry Schasstein’s wondrous artwork, Castle Kilbride was designated a National Historic Site. It is called “one of the finest examples of such art in Canada.”

Today Castle Kilbride remains a glorious testament to the spirit of one of Canada’s nation makers, James Livingston.




    Farewell to the Donnellys and Peg-Leg Brown

    It’s the crenellations you notice first. It’s those characteristic castle battlements peeking over the trees in the midst of an urban 21st century cityscape….

    But this is no faux castle-amusement park attraction, but the real thing: the early 19th century Middlesex County Courthouse. Built in 1827 when the future province was little more than a wilderness, the Gothic structure stands in good health today, as London’s most famous landmark.

    And what stories it has to tell….


    It’s 1798—and the Parliament of Upper Canada has created the District of London. They place the centre of government in Vittoria (today nothing more than blink-and-it’s gone-settlement south of the town of Simcoe.)

    But as settlers continue to arrive and were drawn to the fertile lands around the Thames River where the town of London was sprouting braches, Vittoria was abandoned and the County Seat moved there. What was Vittoria’s eternal loss was London’s gain.

    And as befitting such an honour, a fine Country Court House would be constructed. None other than the esteemed Toronto architect John Ewart, who’d also envisioned Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, would be the designer.

    No shrinking violet, or fly-beneath-the- radar architect was Ewart. He favoured Scottish Gothic in his designs, including the distinctive up-and-down, crenellated parapets; tall, elegant lancet windows; octagonal towers; polygon bay windows; and massive wooden doors.

    Positioning the building on top of a hill completed the wow! statement.  

    A more modest gaol was constructed on the back of the Courthouse to make quick work of sentencing and housing the ne’er-do-wells of the day.  

    And rapscallions they were.

    The most notorious involved the outlaw Black Donnellys. In 1880, the Lucan neighbours of James Donnelly, who’d just been freed from a seven year lock-up in the Kingston Penitentiary for the murder of Patrick Ferrell, gave him a rousing homecoming.  

    Before the prodigal James had time to wash out his socks, the mob-neighbours murdered him, his wife, and two sons. Ringleaders who’d orchestrated the Donnelly murders were later tried in the Middlesex County Court House. Both of the trials were dismissed.

    The legend of the Donnelly faded into Ontario history.


    A less notorious case, but less compelling involves one Marion “Peg-Leg” Brown. A murderous Texan with a missing leg and a scar over one eye, he’d flown his Texan coop and landed in Ontario. A warrant was out for his arrest.

    In London, he’d been recognized, thanks to his distinctive peg-leg footprint, and a member of the Constabulary apprehended him. The policeman promptly met his maker, thanks to a Peg-Leg and a gunshot to head.

    The search for the murdering American was on across the country. Citizens came forward regularly with sightings of various Peg-Legged men. In total 15 peg-leggers were apprehended on suspicion of murder—and released.

    As time passed, the hunt for the real Peg-Leg Brown became an embarrassment for London Police Force.

    Eventually, the varmint was apprehended, selling liquor to Indians in his native U.S. He was brought to the Middlesex County Court House for trial. Peg-Leg Brown’s trial was a cause celebre, with over 300 spectators crowding into the Courthouse. Evidence showed that he’d killed at least 5 other men while on the lam.  

    In the end Marion “Peg-Leg” Brown was convicted of murder. As he was led away to the gallows, he prophesied: “Another innocent man has been convicted. The fact that no grass shall form on my grave shall prove my innocence.”

    At this pronouncement, a lightning bolt struck the courthouse.

    History has proved Peg-Leg’s prediction true. In 1985, his unmarked grave was dug up from under the tarmac of the Middlesex County House parking lot. It had been graveled for years. Peg-Leg’s ghost is said to haunt the halls and passageway of the building too. Especially on the anniversary of his sentencing. May 11, 1899.  

    As always, fact is stranger than fiction.  



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The Oscar Wilde? In Woodstock???

Even by today’s “anything goes” standards, British playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde would stand out from the crowd. In Victorian England, where and when he held court, Oscar was a veritable neon sign.

A flamboyant dresser, open homosexual and frequenter of opium dens, the author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Ernest” viewed his Victorian world from a caustic perspective.

Of friendship, Wilde observed:  “True friends stab you in the front.”

On making enemies, he advised: “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”

 And of morality, Wilde, (who knew much on this topic) predicted: Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.


In 1882, Oscar Wilde took his outrageous road show to “the Dominions”—Canada that is, a mere 15 years into nationhood. Then on to America, scarce more cultured; scarce more refined. 

This was no literary tour. That purpose would have drawn the appropriate high-brow crowd. No, Mr. Wilde was setting out on an artistic mission to promote his latest addiction– the “Arts and Crafts” design movement.

Led by artist and writer William Morris, “Arts and Crafts” promoted  traditional craftsmanship, produced by local artisans in all the decorative arts–architecture, painting, sculpture and furniture-making. Arts and Crafts took as its “goddess” the forms, images and colours of nature.

Travelling by train, Wilde’s tour would stop at 15 Canadian communities. In each he would preach his “gospel.” And if tales of his performances in England were to be believed, he’d be quite the attraction. 

One of the stops on Oscar’s Canadian tour would be the little town of Woodstock, in the southwestern region of Ontario. No more than a dot on the map, deep in Ontario farm country, Woodstock seems a curious stop for such a pesonality.

But Wilde had been invited to speak by the Woodstock Mechanics Institute (the forerunner of the Woodstock Public Library). And besides, this little town and had a darn fine Town Hall to host the event.

Built in 1853, the yellow brick structure featured a handsome front gable roof, towering cupola, sandstone detailing on its windows and boasted the Royal Coat of Arms above its carved wooden front doors.

The interior boasted a large meeting area and stage on its second floor. Walls were finished with fine oak wainscot paneling.

With scant knowledge of the subject of their famous guest’s lecture, Woodstonians still flocked to the train station to catch a glimpse of him as he stepped off the train. Oscar did not disappoint.

Newspaper reports of the day describe the long-haired Wilde in royal blue knickers and matching jacket; lace shirt, and opera cape. He carried the symbol of the Arts and Crafts movement, a large sunflower.

If those who held tickets–25 cents each—to the biggest show in town hoped Wilde’s speech would be as outlandish as his costume, they were sorely disappointed.

The local newspaper reported that he began with the words: “I do not address those millionaires who pillage Europe for their pleasure, but those of moderate means who can have designs of worth and beauty before them always and at little cost.”

The remainder of Wilde’s talk was equally as thoughtful, as he delivered “a credible lecture on the importance of having beautiful surroundings in everyday life.”

And in the blink of an eye, Oscar Wilde was gone. Off to the next whistle stop…..  

While the Woodstock Town Hall had, and would, host other celebrities—including Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, few would be as memorable as Oscar Wilde.

Over its 170 year history, The Woodstock Town Hall has served as a public assembly hall, a fire hall, the police lock-up, city council chambers and municipal offices.

My own vivid memories, as a child growing up in Woodstock are of the weekly farmer’s market that was held on its ground floor.

The building now serves as The Woodstock Museum and is open to the public. Sharp-eyed visitors will notice the pitting of its front wooden doors, where proclamations and public notices were nailed. Axe marks on the oak floors serve as remainder that wood was chopped to feed the stove that once heated the building.

The Woodstock Town Hall was designated as a National Historic Site in 1955.

466 Dundas Street,

 Woodstock, ON

N4S 1C4
(519) 537-8411

Sources: Kevin O’Brien, “Oscar Wilde in Canada,” (extracts in Woodstock Public Library, Oscar Wilde history file); and the Woodstock Sentinel Review.

Hillary House National Historic Site: Morphine and Mercury in a Handy Travel Kit

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National Historic Site Hillary House and the Koffler Medical Museum

15372 Yonge Street

Aurora, Ontario

Tel: 905-727-8991



Here’s a question. What did American Civil War surgeons carry with them when they went out on a battlefield “house” call?

Answer: a couple of saws, a knife or two; a few needles, thread and a tourniquet. No disinfectant in this handy kit. If the musket didn’t kill you, the bacteria surely would.

Hillary House National Historic Site of Aurora invites visitors to see this gruesome kit, and other Victorian medical  instruments in their Koffler Museum of Medicine. It’s a fascinating place. From the early 1860’s  to  a century later, four generations of physicians called Hillary House their family home, their medical office, surgery and apothecary. It’s on the main street of the pretty town of Aurora, a hop-skip-and-jump north of Toronto.

Tag along with me, on a virtual tour. First stop is the Doctor’s Consulting room.  A handsome horsehair couch is the room’s  main feature.  This essential piece of Victorian furniture gave decades-long service as an examining and surgery “bed.”  Not a sterlized sheet in sight.

And here’s that Civil War Amputation Kit, tucked into a handsome mahogany box, velvet-lined. And of course, the healing man’s  essential medical bag.

Crossing over to the Dispensary, take a minute to take a look at the “Doctor’s Fees” posted outside the door. Removal of hemmoroids set back patients $25. Pesky and expensive, those hemmoriods. Helping the patient “pass wind” was a bargain at  $2.00. And treatment of venereal disease? A bargain at $5.

Local drug store pharmacists had not yet taken their place in the medical landscape when Hillary House’s Victorian- era doctors were tending to their patients’ ailments.  So the good doctor took the role of chemist too. And what a Pandora’s Box of “cures” he cooked up! Here’s a mortar and pestle for grinding; scales to measure the draughts; empty bottles for storage and cork stoppers to keep the goodness in.

Here’s Wood’s Vegetable Cure, Wills English Cure, Balsam of Life and Munigan’s Cure. You’re travelling? Take along this handy-dandy Medicinal Travelling Kit, containing everything essential, in a compact case. There’s Mercury as an antiseptic; morphine for reduction of pain; glonion (today’s nitroglycerine) for heart palpitations, and anondyne to lessen “sensitivity” in the brain.  Have a worry-free trip!

Your glimpse into the Victorian medical world over; make sure you tour through the rest of this charming family home. Called “one of the best examples of the Picturesque Gothic Revival architecture in Ontario,” Hillary House is decorated in period furniture. Its upper-floor bathroom boasted the first flush toilet and stainless steel bathtub in Aurora. A ballroom hosted musical events and fancy dress balls.

Hillary House Curator Catherine Richards and her staff keep themselves busy giving guided tours of both Hillary House and the Koffler Medical Museum. They plan various exhibits and programs year round.

A National Historic Site since 1973, Hillary House is owned and administered by the Aurora Historical Society. Make a point to visit this spring or summer. You’ll be glad you did.