07 November 2019

A Dedication Born of Tragedy

Purchased four years ago, The Miracle and Other Poems set me back two dollars and change. That price says much about contemporary interest in Virna Sheard. I imagine her husband, Dr Charles Sheard, would be pleased. According to the poet, he held a "deeply rooted prejudice" against her literally endeavours. A person of public profile himself – Chief Medical Officer of Toronto, Chairman of Ontario's Board of Health, President of the Canadian Medical Association, and Member of Parliament, amongst other things – Dr Sheard disliked the publicity brought by his wife's writing.

Doctor Sheard reflects his time, as does his wife, as does The Miracle and Other Poems (1913). I've shared several examples of its verse – "April", "When April Comes!""November", and "When Christmas Comes" – but not one has stayed with me so much as that found in its dedication:

Before reading those four lines, I knew nothing of the link between the poet and the Niagara Ice Bridge Tragedy.

The Globe, 5 February 1912
Accounts of the tragedy are detailed and varying, owing, I think, to the number who witnessed and were traumatized by its horror.

On Sunday, 4 February 1912, approximately three dozen people ventured out on the Niagara Ice Bridge, a natural structure spanning the Canadian and American shores. Walking across, an old and popular pastime, was thought safe until that afternoon when the bridge broke apart. All reached the safety of the shore save Eldridge Stanton, his wife, and a sixteen-year-old American boy named Burrell Hecock. The last could've made land, but turned back to help the couple.

It only gets worse.

The boy became separated from the Stantons, finding himself stranded on another ice floe. As it drifted slowly toward the falls, he managed to grasp a rope dangling from one of the bridges. A crew began pulling him up, but the boy lost his grip, plunged into the river, and disappeared.

Anguished reporting in the following day's Toronto Globe concludes with the fate of the Stantons:

The Globe, 5 February 1912
These words from earlier in the reporting cannot fail to move:
Somewhere deep in the great whirlpool to-night; sleeps the man, partially identified as Mr. Stanton, who twice put side chances of rescue in order to remain with his terror-stricken wife, and who, in the shadow of death, spurned assistance for himself and attempted to bind about the woman's body a rope dangling from the lower steel arch bridge. And the lad, Burrell Heacock, is cast from the same mould. Had he not turned back on the ice to give assistance to the man he, too, might have made the shore.
This is rightly the story of the Stantons and Burrell Hecock (often incorrectly spelled "Heacock"), but the literary historian in me can't help but be interested in its connection to Virna Sheard. The poet is mentioned in newspaper accounts, but never as a poet, and always as an appendage of her husband. This paragraph from from the Globe (6 February 1912) is typical:

Because the Stanton family was in the stationary business, the deaths of Eldridge Stanton and his wife were reported in the March issue of Bookseller & Stationer:

Again, his relationship to the poet Virna Sheard escapes mention. Curiously, and for no perceptible reason, the very same issue of Bookseller & Stationer features this portrait:

I shared the Bookseller & Stationer reporting because it too is a reflection of its time. It is no different than other contemporary reports in referring to the dead woman as "Mrs Stanton" or, more often than not, "his wife." Her husband is described as the Secretary Treasurer of O. B. Stanton & Wilson, stationers and printers, the son of prominent professional photographer Eldridge Stanton, Sr, while she is... well... her husband's wife.

The Globe, 6 February 1912

Some digging finds that she was born in Toronto on 13 June 1882 to Lillian and Nelson Butcher. Her given names were Lillian Clara. She was known by the latter.

I wish I could offer more. This doesn't do her justice.

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