This Week in Peterborough: 1863

Famed opera singer Madame Anna Bishop. (image via the State Library of New South Wales)

Famed opera singer Madame Anna Bishop. (image via the State Library of New South Wales)

We are getting closer, in this series, to 1867 and Confederation, but those events are not yet upon us as we deal with 1863.  This time around, we get a interesting look at the entertainment options available in mid-19th-century Peterborough, however, and discover that the relatively young city was already drawing some big names!

Click on for those items, plus a by-election, conflicts in foreign parts, and a major Canadian institution changing hands!

On the international stage, the big news was, as it had been for the previous couple of years, the American Civil War.  Early July had seen some significant defeats inflicted on the Union (including the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, later portrayed in the film Glory), and that may have been what caused the Peterborough Examiner for July 30th, 1863, to run a fairly despondent article by a reporter from the American Paper.  The Paper‘s analysis of the war included some fiery rhetoric:

“We are turning our homes into charnel houses.

There is a corpse in every family.

The angel of death sits in every door.

The Devil has removed from Tartarus to Washington.

We pretend that we are punishing the rebels but they are punishing us.”

The Paper’s pessimism about events turned out to be unfounded, even in the short term — by the end of 1863, Union forces had complete control of the Mississippi River.


The Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, by F.X. Winterhalter (image via Wikimedia Commons)

There were, of course, other foreign conflicts going on in the Summer of 1863, and one of those was not much farther away from Peterborough than the Civil War.  The French, under Napoleon III, had invaded Mexico and captured Mexico City in June, and those developments would eventually lead to the brief reign of the Emperor Maximilian I.  There were some apparent fears that Napoleon, having conquered Mexico, would take advantage of the chaos in the United States and turn his attentions northward, but the Examiner, on August 6th, confronted those rumours in succinct fashion:

“It is declared that Napoleon has an eye upon the States, and is only waiting an opportunity to swallow up the whole of Canada.  The thing is ridiculous.  The French ruler may be ambitious, inordinately so, and may be stretching out his feelers in all directions to see what he may grab, but he is a man likewise of good common sense and strong judgement, and is not likely therefore… to be so foolhardy as to provoke a contest that would shatter into fragments his dynasty, and cost him as dear as it did his uncle, the great Napoleon.”

Napoleon III, of course, never did try to expand his empire in North America, and Maximilian, who instituted some very socially progressive policies (he abolished child labour in Mexico, for example), was overthrown and executed only four years later.

In the Province of Canada itself, the most important news of late July, 1863, was the sale of the Hudson’s Bay Company, by then already nearly 200 years old, to a group of investors led by former Governor General Sir Edmund Walker Head.  Head and his colleagues paid 1.5 million pounds for the company, for which they received all the HBC’s material assets, not to mention nearly a billion acres of territory.  The July 30th Examiner opined that, under its new directors, the HBC would likely diversify itself somewhat from its fur-trade routes, and it did indeed do so in time.


Advertisement from the August 6th, 1863 Peterborough Examiner.

The end of July and the beginning of August of 1863 were entertaining times in the city of Peterborough itself!  On July 30th, the “musical amateurs of Peterborough” gave a benefit concert for the city’s skating rink, featuring “Songs, Duetts [sic] and Instrumental pieces,” according to an ad for the event in the Examiner.  Even more exciting things — and bigger names — were anticipated.  The renowned, and somewhat scandalous, English soprano Madame Anna Bishop (pictured above) was to inaugurate Peterborough’s new concert hall on August 6th, performing Victor Massé’s one-act opera Les Noces de Jeannette.  She had been infamous 25 years  or so earlier for ditching her husband to take up with her accompanist, a much older man named Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, who may have been the inspiration for the literary character Svengali (he was not accompanying her when she sang in Peterborough, having died in 1856).  Bishop would have 53 years old when she appeared at the new concert hall — a little past her prime, perhaps, but she had a reputation as one of the great singing talents of the mid-19th century.

That spectacle was to be followed, if not surpassed, by an August 10th visit from the circus — or, as it was advertised, the “New Monster Equescurriculum.”  This event, in addition to featuring the “unparalleled display of horsemanship” that its name implies, would display to the people of Peterborough such excitements as “acting bears,” “performing dogs and monkeys,” “leaping buffaloes from the prairies of the Far West,” and “Derr’s Educated Sacred Bull from Hindostan [sic]” (all quotes from a July 30th ad in the Examiner)  The star attraction, however, was to be the famous circus clown Joe Pentland, whose innovative “drunken sailor” horseback routine was later described by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

There was also, of course, some serious business in the community.  While high summer was not the peak time for political activity in the Province of Canada, Peterborough had seen a by-election in late July for its seat in the Legislative Council of the Province of Canada (the upper house of the Province’s parliament).  Victorious in this was Billa Flint, who later became a Liberal senator after Confederation, as he defeated Peregrine Maitland Grover by about 700 votes out of 4000 cast.  It was, by all accounts, a low-key sort of election, free of the drama — and dramatics — that had accompanied the 1861 race in Peterborough that we looked at a few weeks ago.

Next Wednesday, we’ll take a look at what the first week of August held for Peterborough in 1864!  Leaping buffaloes may not be included (but then again, they may!).


Advertisement from the July 30th, 1863 Peterborough Examiner.

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