This Week in Peterborough: 1890


“Interior view of a tent hospital” in Paris. (L’Illustration, January 4th, 1890)

It is possibly somewhat luridly over-dramatic to say that Death was stalking the streets of Peterborough as January of 1890 became February.  On the other hand, it is closer to the truth of the matter than is really funny, as we shall see…

Click on, for an unpleasant visitor from Russia, notable politicking at both federal and provincial levels, pistols at dawn in France, and other interesting things!

The social calendar of Peterborough in early February of 1890 was a barren affair, compared to previous years, and there may be a very good reason for that.  The town was in the grip of the Russian Influenza pandemic of 1889-90 — in fact, the outbreak had crested in North America in January.  The Russian flu — so-called because the illness first manifested itself in St. Petersburg — killed roughly a million people worldwide that winter, a death toll that pales in comparison with the Spanish flu outbreak 30 years later, but is nonetheless dreadful.


Finding humour even in the midst of a pandemic: Harper’s Weekly, January 11th, 1890. (Click to see larger version)


Peterborough, as noted, was not spared the ravages of the flu, with obituaries and funeral announcements appearing much, much, more frequently than usual in the pages of the local newspapers.  Among the numerous deceased, noted in the February 1st Peterborough Examiner,  was a Mrs. Eliza Williamson, who as a little girl had been among the very first pioneer settlers in the area of Millbrook 70 years previously.  For the survivors, the papers were full of ads for flu remedies.  “No family should be without a bottle of Nasal Bomb,” claimed one ubiquitous adverstisement, while another typical offering called upon readers to drink copious amounts of Hawley Bros. Prime Tea (“The very best course of treatment to adopt”).

There was a also a notable local death that had nothing to do with the flu.  Robert Armour, son of the Rev. Samuel Armour after whom both Armour Hill and Armour Road are named, passed away of cancer in Bowmanville.  The younger Armour had been a notable barrister in the district, and the Review carried a long obituary for him on February 3rd.  That piece noted, among other interesting things, that Robert Armour had been a relative by marriage of famed British explorer Sir Richard Burton.  He was also, said the paper, a direct descendant of Sir James Douglas (aka “The Black Douglas), a companion of Robert the Bruce during the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early 14th-century.

Despite the flu, Parliament was in session, and debating a couple of measures related to elections.  The first of these, proposed by Liberal MP John Charlton, would have made it an offense to promise any public money for infrastructure projects in a riding during an election campaign.  The second was the latest skirmish over the the division power between Ottawa and the provinces.  In 1885, the Conservative government had making the power to determine voter eligibility a federal one, but the matter was no means finished.  Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals were determined to hand the voters’ lists back to the provinces.  According to the February 6th Peterborough Review, Laurier felt that the 1885 Act had been “even worse than anticipated and… an unmitigated evil,” not to mention “an interference with the rights of the provinces and a menace to the Federal principle.”  There was little he could do about it with the Conservatives in power, but he would return the right to the set the voters’ lists to the provinces in 1896.


Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway (via Wikimedia Commons)

There were also interesting parliamentary doings in Manitoba at this time — the opening shots in an controversy that hold the entire country’s attention for the better part of the next decade.  Liberal Premier Thomas Greenway, whom we have already met a couple of times in recent editions of this series, was proposing to do away with Manitoba’s denominational school system in favour of a sectarian one.  This, combined with a separate Act that would strip French of its official language status in the province, was met with determined opposition from Manitoban Catholics, an almost-entirely Francophone group.

The Manitoba Schools Act was also fiercely opposed by Greenway’s opponents in the provincial legislature.  On February 3rd, as the Review reported at length the next day, opposition members attempted to raise the issue of a personal scandal involving Premier Greenway.  They got short shrift from the Speaker:

“Speaker Winram sustained the objection [to a motion that would have censured Greenway], contending that this resolution had reference to a street rumor affecting the private life of the Premier, and did not come within the province of the Legislature.  Members of the Legislature, he said, were there to discuss the business of the country, not scandals.”

Beyond that, no clue was given as to the nature of the scandal, and the Manitoba Schools Question lingered on until Laurier effected a compromise upon his election in 1896.


Peterborough Daily Evening Review, February 1st, 1890.

Things were fairly quiescent in foreign parts, with the flu again possibly playing a role, so what we are left with is essentially tidbits of news.  Under the headline “The Washington Fire Horror,” the February 4th Examiner reported on the blaze that killed the wife and daughter, and their maid, of Benjamin Franklin Tracy, Secretary of the U.S. Navy and later Mayor of New York City.  The February 1st Review, meanwhile, contained the story of the arrest of the unfortunately-named Craven Edward Silcott, cashier to the Sergeant-at-Arms of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Silcott had stolen about $95,000, and fled to a small village near Montreal.  There, he was captured at the home of Louise Thibault, whom the Review described as “the frail beauty for whom it is said [Silcott] went wrong.”  Interestingly, the Review story was accompanied by an engraving of Silcott (see above) — the first news-related image that we have encountered in this series.

On February 2nd, in the Examiner, was a story about a duel fought in France between the Marquis de Morès and Ferdinand Camille Dreyfus, editor of the newspaper La Nation.  Dreyfus, who had written an article critical of the nobleman, was shot in the arm during the duel, but both men survived.  The Marquis had a colourful career — prior to 1890 he had been a rancher and feared gunslinger in the Dakota Territory of the U.S., and later tried to become a railway magnate in Vietnam.  He was also a resolute anti-Semite (Dreyfus, probably not coincidentally, was Jewish).  De Morès would later be killed by Tuareg tribesmen, possibly at the behest of the French government, while on a clandestine mission to the region of Sudan.


The Marquis de Morès, during his time in the U.S. (via the State Historical Society of North Dakota)

And so we return, at the last, to the local scene.  The Russian Influenza pandemic might have curtailed activities in Peterborough, but it had not shut them down entirely.  Notable among the goings-on was an organizational meeting to set up the Peterborough Humane Society.  According the February 1st Review, the new Society would have as its mandate “the prevention of cruelty to children and animals.”  Peterborians were also looking forward to the upcoming Valentine’s Day fancy dress party at the skating rink — “the first, last, and best carnival of the season,” as described in the February 1st Examiner.

Next time out, we’ll look at early February of 1891, and probably have something to say about the last hurrah of a Canadian political dynasty!

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