In the early days of Canada, the gentler sex kept the fires lit and helped their men carve a home in the wilds of nature. They raised the babies, kept their place, and minded their manners. But not all women were the picture of respectability. Perhaps years of having to keep their place and mind their tongues caused a few women to cross that grey line of feminine respectability. Some crossed it, some scaled it, and indeed some of those ladies were downright nasty! But, after all, they were only ladies, and how bad can a lady be?
John Kendrick and the Haida
Captain John Kendrick found out. In 1790, he took offense to his laundry being seized by a group of Haida his ship was trading with. He made the mistake of holding the chief in irons until restitution was paid. When he came back a year later he figured the trifling incident was forgotten. But the Native Americans had long memories and the Haida women took as much delight in vengeance as the men of the village.
Once the trading had resumed on that day in June 1791 and the crew of the Lady Washington felt secure, the Chief signalled for his people to approach Kendrick's ship. One woman, described as a "Vertible Amazon," clambered aboard the rigging, shouting insults at the crew and encouragement to her fellow warriors and warrioresses.
The crew of the boat managed to make it to the weapons and began to fight off the Haida, but not before many were killed. The Haida fled, and the last Haida left was the Amazon swinging in the rigging, shouting venomous remarks to the crew until the last possible moment before plunging herself into the water and swimming for safety.
The early settlements in Greenland and Vinland set the tone for what was to come. Eric the Red, exiled by his countrymen in Iceland for manslaughter, founded the settlement in Greenland, and he brought with him his cunning daughter Freydis, who traveled on to Vinland (Canada) for a winter.
Freydis was not one to shirk from battle. When the Norse settlement was being overrun by Eskimos who were a little miffed at not being able to trade for the remainder of the Norse winter larder, the majority of the Norsemen took to the country. Freydis was said to have run out of her house and scolded them: "Why are you running from wretches like these? Why, if I had a weapon I could put up a better fight than any of you!"
The men kept running, and the very pregnant Freydis was forced to flee as well. But she soon came across one of the fallen Norsemen, his weapon still intact by his side. Baring her breasts, she whetted the sword upon them and stared defiantly at the oncoming crowd of Eskimos. That stopped them dead in their tracks. The sight of a woman, bloodied for battle and armed with a sword, was more then they could comprehend. They turned and fled. Freydis was praised for her actions, but it did not save her reputation later on.
Freydis later returned with her husband to Greenland, where she arranged a partnership with two Icelandic tradesmen. They journeyed with their wives and Freydis and her husband back to Vinland, where they harvested timber for profit. It was on the way back that Freydis let slip to her husband that the two tradesmen had taken liberties with her. Her husband stormed into the ship's hold to avenge his wife. He slaughtered the surprised and probably innocent men while they slept. But he could not bring himself to harm their womenfolk.
No matter, thought Freydis, who considered men weak when it came to getting the job done. She shouted, "Give me an axe!" She returned to the sleep hold and hacked the five women to pieces, thus ensuring no partners or widows to collect the percentage of the timber profits.
Although she tried to bribe the members of her crew to keep their tongues from wagging, her story leaked out. It came to the ears of her half-brother, Lief Ericsson, who disowned her for her actions. Had this event happened during the previous century, his sister's murderous rampage would have resulted in endless blood feuding. As it was, Freydis and her husband were cast out and treated with contempt, and faded into the obscurity of history.
"Dead cats don't mew."
Among the early pirates who roamed the waters outside of Canada were a few avant-garde ladies who believed in equal opportunity pillaging. One such lady was Marie Lindsey. She met her future husband and partner in crime, Eric Cobham, in Plymouth. Their favorite base of operation was in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and they managed a successful career of pillage and plunder for twenty years. Their success can be explained by the pirate phrase, "Dead cats don't mew." It was the couple's practice to kill everyone on board a captured ship when they were ready to disembark. By murdering all hands and sinking the vessel, they ensured that the ship would officially be lodged as 'lost at sea.' Marie took great delight in her end of the bargain, including poisoning a ships' crew so she could watch them writhe in agony as the ship went down, or having survivors sewn alive into gunny sacks and then tossed overboard. She even used to tie survivors to the ship's posts and use them for target practice.
When the couple felt they had enough to retire, they headed for France and bought a huge estate, a yacht, and a private harbor. Eric gained respectability and even became a magistrate in the French county courts where he delivered verdicts for over 12 years. He also took to wenching. Marie took to laudanum and became solitary. Marie's body was found one day under a cliff, an apparent suicide, although she had enough of her favorite drug in her system to kill her. After Eric's natural death, his memoirs were published, as he requested. But his heirs, now respectable, tried to suppress the book, burning every copy they could lay their hands on. Still, one copy made its way into the French archives, where it exists today to tell the tale of Marie and Eric and their pirate past.
The Black Donnellys
Johannah met her husband James Donnelly in Tipperary, Ireland, where during a brawl between Protestants and Catholics she gave him a billy club so he could bash someone in the head. Johannah was by no means a pretty lass. She was big-boned and tall and had a manly face. But there was something strong in her that James loved and soon they were married, blessed with a son and on their way to Canada. They settled first in Forest City (London, Ontario) where James tried to eke out a living, while avoiding the "No Irish Wanted" signs.
A second son (William) was born to Johannah with a deformed foot, and it was not long before tongues would wag about this woman's "devil brood." Deciding that town life was not for them, they decided to try their hands at what they knew best: farming.
Eventually (around 1845-46) they settled in Biddulph, Ontario. James, being poor, couldn't afford land, so the family became squatters on a small piece of land, which they called home. They had more children and worked the land for four years when a feud broke out between a renter of the property and James. Tempers flared, James struck out, and the man soon lay dead.
While her husband fled the law for eleven months. Johannah raised her sons and the crops, while putting a light in the window when the coast was clear for James to come home for a meal. When she got sick, folks wondered who the strange woman in the dress was working the plow, but no one suspected it was James, who was hiding in the family's back yard all along. When he gave himself up, Johannah, who couldn't bear the thought of her beloved swinging on the noose, went to work to collect names for a less severe sentence. Through pleas, threats, and bullying she finally got her way. James went to prison and Johannah went to work on her sons.
With a jailbird for a father, they were picked on, so Johannah gave them boxing lessons. The boys grew up tough and Johannah tougher. She would get down on her knees to pray to God that her sons would grow up to kill a man sooner than take any of his lip.
Her sons were quick studies. Soon neighbours who voiced bad opinions about James were finding their barns torched. "I like yeh," Johannah said once to a neighbour who was kind to her, "so we won't be burning ye down."
Johannah's family of nine had to find some way to survive. Illegal business became a means to an end. They forced the local hotels to buy beef from them, though the Donnelly's meagre herd never dwindled: their neighbours' cows disappeared. Father was released from jail in seven years, in time to join the family stagecoach business. When a rival company refused to back down in a confrontation with them, their horses were found with the tongues cut out. In February of 1880 the community had had enough. A vigilante group was formed to kill the "Black Donnellys." Johannah, James, two of their sons, and an innocent niece were put to death in their own home, while a young neighbour boy who had slept over while helping on the farm watched helplessly from a hiding place. They were beaten to death with sticks, clubs and other farm implements. The house was set ablaze and the committee moved on to Johannah's sons' house, still hungry for Donnelly blood. In the end son John was added to the list of dead. In the daylight, while the police waited for the fire to die down, three of the five skulls were taken as morbid souvenirs. Clubfoot Will (who some said was the smartest Donnelly and in league with Satan) survived to try and bring justice to his family's killers, but the murderers were never convicted, though a trial was held.
On a light-fingered note
In October 1901, Stella Nelson, "the most notorious and accomplished pickpocket that ever operated in the Northwest," arrived in Vancouver. She was not totally unknown to the city, having operated there before. She had just returned from Nome, Alaska. Stella looked magnificent after her four months in the cold frontier. She was clothed in sealskins and silk and adorned with numerous valuable nuggets.
The chief of police met her on the dock and inquired about her trip. "I've had a lovely time," said Stella. "Arrested four times a week and they couldn't prove a thing!" "Heading south?" asked the chief, steering Stella towards a gangplank. "But of course!" said Stella, and she went without a fuss, heading for other ports ripe for the plucking where perhaps she wasn't so well known.
Despite our delicate nature, we ladies have managed to raise a little ruckus now and then. Whether it be on the tall ships out at sea, or the parlours and prairies of early Canadian civilization, women heroines and villains have had their place. They are not always easy to find, as so much history seems to be dedicated to the patriarchy of our past. Sometimes, in the case of Marie Cobham, the family blocks the real story, not wanting the less virtuous facts to come out. Sometimes women who made their own marks, however bloody, were buried in history and it takes a lot of digging to bring their stories into view.
But times are changing. The case of the Donnellys now has its own website, a historical site open to visitors, and several books on the tale. Both Marie and the bare-breasted Freydis have gone on to appear in a book on women pirates, no less. Stella can be found adding colour to a volume or two of gold rush history, and of course all can be found in archives, in lost letters, in snippets of history, if we are only to scratch the surface.
I don't seek permission to go on a rampage of my own, only to have the truth told. Should these downright nasty details be hidden? You have to decide for yourself, but for me these ladies have added to the colourful fabric of our past, reminding us that no act, legal or illegal, is beyond the grasp of a determined woman. And the rest, as they say, is herstory.
Copyright © 2003 Nancy Bennett
Nancy Bennett is a historical essayist from Vancouver Island.