01 March 2021

Madge Macbeth's Great Gold Rush Hoax

The Long Day: Reminiscences of the Yukon
W.S. Dill [pseud Madge Macbeth]
Ottawa: Laurentian Press Syndicate, [c. 1926]
245 pages

I can't claim to have read every book by Madge Macbeth – her history The Lady Stanley Institute for Trained Nurses (Ottawa: Lady Stanley Institute Alumnae Association, 1959), isn't anywhere near the top of my TBR pile – but of those I've tackled The Land of Afternoon (Ottawa: Graphic, 1925) is by far my favourite. A scandalous political roman a clèpublished in the midst of a federal election, she kept herself well hidden under the pseudonym "Gilbert Knox." Conservative MP Alfred Ernest Fripp did his best to hunt down the author's true identity, as did Parliamentary Librarian Martin Burrell, but it wasn't until after Macbeth's death, four decades in the future, that all was revealed.

I expect Madge Macbeth didn't feel the need to be so cautious with "W.S. Dill."

The Long Day presents itself as a reminiscence of the Yukon Gold Rush as written by a man who witnessed it all. Dill didn't exist, Macbeth didn't visit, and yet this reader, steeped in Gold Rush lore owing to a great-grandfather who served in Skagway as a customs inspector, found little by way of fabrication. The author draws frequently and liberally from those who were there. Four pages come from boxer Frank "Paddy" Slavin's 1926 autobiography The Sydney Cornstalk. Another boxer, Jack Kearns is quoted at length from a wire service piece published in the 6 July 1926 edition of the Ottawa Journal

Macbeth finds her richest vein in William Ogilvie's Early Days on the Yukon (Toronto: Bell & Cockburn, 1913), retelling Ogilvie's stories in a way that verges on plagiarism. Consider this passage from The Long Day:
During the winter of '96-7, disturbing news—Queen Victoria was critically ill—Pope Leo the Thirteenth lay at the point of death—War between England and Russia was imminent, and, perhaps more agitated than all of these to the camp was the prospect of a prize fight between James J. Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons, scheduled for the spring.
Now, here's Early Days on the Yukon:
During the winter the last arrival from the outside who brought any newspapers, brought dire intelligence indeed. According to the papers, Queen Victoria was critically ill; Pope Leo XIII was at the point of death; war was imminent between England and Russia; and, more exciting to the camp, a fight for the championship of the world was coming off some time in the spring between the star pugilists, James J. Corbett and Robert FitzSimmons [sic].
Tracking Macbeth's sources is good fun, but it does distract. After a bit, I abandoned the chase and settled back to enjoy the stories she'd chosen to tell. My favourite involves Charles Carbonneau — Macbeth has his Christian name as "Jules" — a Montreal barber who reinvented himself as M le Comte Carbonneau, representative of French wine merchants Messieurs Pierre Legros, Freres et Cie. A rogue of the highest order, he woos trouser-wearing miner Belinda Mulrooney, "the richest woman in the Klondike," marries her, builds a chateau in France, and then makes off with her younger sister.

The Baltimore Sun, 17 September 1906

It's a sad and sordid tale, told in such detail that you'd think W.S. Dill had borne witness to the courtship, attended the wedding, and had had a glass or two at the celebration that followed. In taking on the persona of her creation, she adopts a voice and writing style that is nothing like her previous books.

The first readers saw of W.S. Dill — as "Willard S. Dill" — came in 'Over the Chilkoot to Eldorado,' published in the 15 September 1926 issue of Maclean's. That initial article, the first in a series of three, brought considerable response, as relayed by editor H. Nigel Moore:

I have no idea whether Moore was in on the hoax. What I can say is that The Long Day was well-received. "Mr. Dill has produced an interesting book and one that will be appreciated by those who knew the gold country in the early days," said the Kingston Whig-Standard (14 February 1927). The 15 January 1927 edition of the Montreal Gazette describes it as "most interesting and instructive," concluding "the book is well worth reading. Anyone who has ever been to the Klondike should not miss it."

I recommend it myself, even to those who have never been to the Klondike. Macbeth has an eye for entertaining tales and a talent for telling them. I finish my own review with the observation that no critic noted this: W.S. Dill doesn't once feature in his book of reminiscences.

Trivia: Madge Macbeth's own reminiscences, Boulevard Career (Toronto: Brunswick, 1957), lists The Long Day as one of her titles. The Land of Afternoon remains hidden, despite Fripp and Burrell being long dead.

Object: A strange-looking thing, isn't it? The raised images and lettering reminds me of nothing so much as old university annuals.

The Long Day was first published in 1926 by Ottawa's legendary Graphic Press. In  his essay "Graphic Press and the Bibliographer" (Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada XVIII), David B. Kotin describes the Laurentian Press Syndicate as an imprint, which applied fresh title pages to sheets used in the Graphic-branded edition. The last pages of my copy list other Graphic titles, including Macbeth's The Day of Afternoon and Shackles.

My copy once belonged to Dr Bertram Reid MacKay (1885-1981), who served over four decades with the Geographical Survey of Canada. 

Doctor MacKay's Carling Avenue house is said to have begun sinking, such was the weight of his immense library. Sadly, for a man who was an early advocate for the preservation Ottawa's heritage buildings, that house was eventually razed. This architectural marvel stands in its place.

Access: Nine copies of the novel are currently listed for sale by online booksellers, none of whom recognize its true author. They range in price from US$20.00 to US$69.00. All are Graphic Press editions. Of those, the one you'll want to buy — price: US$40.56 — is offered with dust jacket by an Ottawa bookseller. 

Twenty-six Canadian libraries hold copies. Yukon Public Libraries does not have a copy.

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  1. Super review.
    I only have 'Shackles' (in about the mangiest copy that could still be called a book). It will get to the top of the list eventually.

    1. Thank you, Beau. Two years ago, I managed to pick up a copy of the Shackles, the American edition, for a Canadian dollar. I really should read it next. Did you know that it's in print from both Tecumseh and Invisible Press? I didn't until last month.

  2. I didn't know. I will check them out.