Nanaimo’s salacious history

Harbour City is not without a few secrets kept under wraps.

Americans have their Lizzie Bordens and their Bonnie and Clydes – the type of salacious history that attracts a morbid sort of tourist.

Although Canadians are less likely to publicize crime stories, it doesn’t mean the stories don’t exist.

As one of B.C.’s oldest cities in the wild west, Nanaimo has its share of skeletons in the closet.

Kanaka Pete

On Dec. 4, 1868, four bodies were found in Peter Kakua’s home and the coal miner of Hawaiian descent was missing.

They didn’t have to look far, however, to find Kakua, referred to as Kanaka Pete, sitting beside a fire on Newcastle Island. Police took him into custody and soon the details of the multiple murder came to light.

Kakua’s aboriginal wife, Mary, told him, via her brother, that she was leaving her husband. Kakua returned home to find Mary, their young child, plus Mary’s parents, packing up her things.

Kakua left and returned intoxicated, when a fight ensued and Kakua said he grabbed an axe and swung indiscriminately until he collapsed in exhaustion.

Kakua was charged with murder and found guilty in court in Victoria. He returned to the gaol under the Bastion in Nanaimo and was executed in March 1869.

Being of neither caucasian nor First Nations descent, Kakua could not be buried in any of the city’s cemeteries and was instead interred on his last place of freedom – the east side of Newcastle Island.

Unfortunately, Kakua was still not allowed to rest. Thirty years later, the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company unearthed Kakua’s coffin as they dug for a new coal mine. Kakua was reburied, in another unmarked grave, for good.

Francis Rattenbury

The legendary architect designed two buildings in Nanaimo – the courthouse on Front Street and the coffeehouse at the corner of Wallace and Albert Streets – as well as the legislature buildings in Victoria.

The young architect caused a scandal in Victoria society when he took up with Alma Pakenham, a concert pianist, despite his marriage. The couple were ostracized even after Rattenbury’s wife’s death, and the couple moved to England.

The age difference took its toll and Alma began an affair with their 17-year-old chauffeur, George Stoner.

The night before the Rattenburys were to leave on vacation, Francis was found downstairs with a bleeding wound, having been struck deliberately with some instrument.

The police were called and Alma confessed to assault, as did her teenage lover, but recanted once Rattenbury died and she was charged with murder.

Alma and Stoner stood trial, with only Stoner committed to hang for the crime. Alma was found not guilty, although guilt likely accounted for her suicide a few days later.

After an uprising of public support, Stoner’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, which ended after seven years when he joined the British Army.

The play Cause Celebre, by Terrence Rattigan, is based on the story.

Gallows Point

Across the channel, on the southern tip of Protection Island, saw the execution of two aboriginal men tried in the first judge and jury trial under English law on the west coast.

Gallows Point, where the lighthouse keeper’s residence still stands, was originally called Execution Point.

In 1852, a shepherd with the Hudson’s Bay Company was murdered near Saanich. Governor James Douglas wanted to establish law and order in the new colony of Vancouver Island and sent a ship from Victoria to apprehend the two native suspects.

One of the suspects was from the Cowichan tribe while the other was the son of a Nanaimo chief. When they refused to surrender, Douglas sent two more ships in pursuit.

The two men were apprehended and tried on the deck of SS Beaver on Jan. 17, 1853. They were hung the same afternoon on the tiny island.

Brother XII

The West Coast of B.C. is often described as the ‘left’ coast for its acceptance of the more liberal ideas from Canada’s population.

That included a New Age prophet who founded a colony of spiritualists, converted their assets into gold and fled to Switzerland once they wised up and took him to court.

Edward Arthur Wilson was born in Birmingham, England, to religiously fanatical parents. He claimed to commune with the spirit world from childhood until one of the 12 masters of the Great White Lodge – a group of spirits who controlled the world – revealed itself. Wilson fashioned himself a disciple and called himself Brother XII.

He wrote two books based on information he received from the Lodge in trances. He established a colony at Cedar-by-the-Sea, with the goal of creating a self-sustaining community.

One of the requirements of entry into the spiritualist estate was surrender of all personal possessions, which Brother XII and his mistress, Madam Z, had converted into gold.

At night, the pair would fill mason jars with gold coin, sealing them with wax, and burying them on property at the Cedar compound and on DeCourcy and Valdez islands.

After his disciples revolted – apparently back-breaking labour, abuse from Madam Z and loss of worldly income were not part of the agreement – they took Brother XII to court to recover their money.

Their spiritual leader and his mistress had fled, however. Later reports surfaced of Brother XII’s death in Switzerland.

Dozens of treasure seekers scoured the former compound for the buried treasure to no avail. One caretaker did find a secret compartment in one of the derelict buildings but it only contained a piece of tarpaper with the words: For fools and traitors, nothing!

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